Sinema and Manchin failed on filibuster removal and voting rights

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Tim Evanson | Flickr

Dani Heba, Copy Editor

President Joseph Biden traveled to Georgia on Jan. 11 with other influential Democrats to put pressure on his Senate caucus to do whatever it takes to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021.

Biden proudly championed the bills and urged the Senate to crush the legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes for any legislative bill to advance to the floor for debate, allowing the bill to pass. Democrats currently only have 51 votes in the Senate, including Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, which gave them the slim majority.

“Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” Biden asked elected officials in his speech. “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis of Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

These comments weren’t taken well, even by members of the president’s party.

Ultimately, the bills failed the Senate, as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona refused to invoke the nuclear option to destroy the filibuster.

After marching to Georgia and invoking the great civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy to advocate for the bills, the only way to describe Manchin and Sinema’s refusal to invoke the nuclear option is as a major disgrace to the Democratic Party’s base and voting rights activists; those who voted for the party in 2020 in hopes of such legislation becoming law.

The Freedom to Vote Act, tailored to Manchin’s liking because he couldn’t get behind the Democratic Party’s For the People Act, would have federalized elections to a large degree.

Included in the bill were provisions that would have effectively overturned states like Texas and Florida’s voter registration laws and would have set federal standards in an attempt to ensure that voters across the country have very similar access to the ballot box.

This would have included automatic and same-day voter registration, greater access to absentee voting and required early voting.

Additionally, it would have established Election Day as a federal holiday, allowed past criminals not currently serving a federal sentence to vote and made it a federal criminal offense to interfere with the voter registration process or prevent someone qualified from getting help registering.

It would have also mandated that states conduct post-election audits for federal elections, which should have theoretically eased Republican concerns regarding voter fraud, required independent redistricting commissions in each state and cracked down on campaign financing.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 served mostly to reinstate provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were struck down in the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

In this case, the Court famously struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which effectively nullified Section 5 of the same law, citing a lack of need for it in modern times and an undue burden on the principles of federalism by which this country operates.

Section 5 of the law required that districts with histories of voter discrimination prove to a threejudge panel, of a Washington, D.C. district court or the U.S. attorney general, that any voting law they wished to pass did not have the purpose or effect of impacting voters’ right to vote based on minority or racial status.

Section 4 of the law described said districts with a history of voting discrimination, including ones that had a voting test in place as of Nov. 1, 1964, and less than a 50% turnout in the 1964 presidential election. The formula for defining these districts, including the date referenced, was updated by Congress regularly.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 aimed to restore the preclearance provisions outlined above to combat a series of new laws being passed in southern states that Democrats argue will hurt voters, particularly minorities, by making it unnecessarily difficult and burdensome to cast a ballot.

It’s clear that the voting rights bills pursued by the Democrats would only make it easier to vote. Eliminating the filibuster to pass this would have been historic and would have reinvigorated the Democratic Party that is in shambles right now.

Manchin and Sinema argued that the filibuster preserved necessary bipartisanship to advance agendas, and would ensure that neither party can enact “wild reversals” of federal policy, as Sinema said.

However, this argument completely ignores the fact that for a bill to become law, it must be approved by both the House, the Senate and the President, going through three different vetting processes before becoming law.

If the people have granted a party the majority in all three, why should an additional supermajority requirement halt the party’s consent to govern?

In the Federalist Papers No. 22, Alexander Hamilton warned of the implications of supermajority requirements such as that of the filibuster, arguing it could demonstrate the country’s weakness and embarrass the country and its government.

“The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security,” Hamilton wrote. “But it’s real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”

Embarrassing it is, as Democrats have now faulted on a major campaign promise in 2020: to protect voting rights, particularly minority rights, despite controlling a majority in both houses of the legislative branch and the executive branch.

In a situation like this, Sen. Mitch McConnell would have made sure his entire Republican caucus came together to nuke the legislative filibuster. He’s nuked a filibuster before; his caucus came together to nuke the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in 2017 to pave the way for Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation after blocking Former President Barack Obama’s 2016 confirmation of Merrick Garland in a manner unprecedented in American history.

“One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, ‘Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy,” McConnell enthusiastically said at the time.

Democrats need this display of strength and unity behind their agenda. Refusing to nuke the filibuster has exposed the Democratic Party as weak, just as Hamilton predicted it would.

As Biden’s approval ratings continue to slide, this inability to come together and stand up for their agenda, unlike the Republicans, will continue to haunt the party in 2022 and beyond. It has allowed obstructionism to win, and legitimate progress to lose.

More than anything, this refusal to stand up will come at the expense of voters, particularly minority voters, who in some states will have to go through a more nauseating process to vote, thanks to the party that promised to protect them ultimately letting them down.