Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, made a choice Wednesday night to side with the 50 Senate Republicans to block changes to the Senate’s filibuster rule and, thus, prevent Democrats from passing voting rights legislation. What happened on the Senate floor was more than just a vote on a Senate rule; Manchin and Sinema chose to preserve the filibuster over preserving our democracy.
President Joe Biden must display his commitment to the Black community to whom he promised to “always” have “their back.”
For their choice, there must be political consequences. And those consequences must not just come from the grass roots — which is already happening — but also from President Joe Biden, who must display his commitment to members of the Black community to whom he promised to “always” have their back.
Of course, voting rights are not just an issue for the Black community. The GOP wishes to silence the voice of anyone who opposes the party, but their vote-diluting, vote-suppressing and potentially vote-rigging measures disproportionately affect people of color, especially Black Americans. That’s why civil rights groups have been raising alarm bells for months to get Biden to focus on voting rights.
The threat posed by the GOP to our democracy is not theoretical. Since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, which aimed to keep Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 election, in place as president, Republican state officials have shifted into overdrive to enact laws they hope will prevent Democrats from winning elections in the states Republicans control. As the Brennan Center for Justice has detailed, 34 laws have been enacted in 19 states since Jan. 6, 2021, that make it harder to register to vote, harder to vote early, harder to vote by mail and use ballot drop boxes — all because the GOP believes those new restrictions will help them win.
When Biden calls these laws “Jim Crow 2.0,” he’s 100 percent correct. Jim Crow laws, such as requiring literacy tests, did not ban Black voters in the text, but they were designed to prevent African Americans from registering by empowering clerks to ask them such questions as “How many jelly beans are in this jar?” or “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”
Some of these new GOP voting laws are cut from the same cloth. A law Texas enacted in 2021 bans 24-hour voting and drive-through voting. Why did the GOP do that? Simple, only one county in Texas used that method: Harris County, a Democratic stronghold where a majority of the people who cast a ballot via 24-hour voting and drive through were Black and Hispanic. Again, like the original Jim Crow, this Texas law is racially neutral on its face but is intended to suppress the vote of people of color.
Worse, Georgia’s GOP state legislature has enacted laws that enable Republicans to more easily overturn the results of elections they don’t agree with—just as Trump wanted Georgia officials to do after the 2020 election. Again, that would disproportionately impact people of color.
Jim Crow laws such as literacy tests did not ban Black voters in the text, but they were designed to prevent African Americans from registering.
Manchin and Sinema know all that. They have been lobbied for months by civil rights groups on the threats these GOP laws pose to our democracy, and especially to Black and brown voters. Given that, Manchin's and Sinema’s votes to preserve the filibuster make them knowingly complicit with the GOP’s vote rigging.
I’m far from alone in this view. Grassroots groups have already been threatening consequences to these senators if they continue to turn their back on democracy in order to preserve the filibuster, a “Jim Crow relic” as former President Barack Obama rightly put it during his eulogy for civil rights icon John Lewis.
Emily’s List – a grassroots organization that works to elect women candidates and played a key role in helping Sinema win the Democratic nomination for Senate in 2018—announced before Wednesday’s vote it would not support her in 2024 if she opposed the filibuster change. Arizona groups Stand Up America and Living United for Change had previously issued a statement that if Sinema decided to “turn her back to the Black and brown organizers who delivered her Senate victory for her, then we will turn our backs on her, too.” A November poll, conducted well before Wednesday’s vote, had Sinema losing badly to other Democrats in a primary election.
West Virginia grassroots organizations, such as Race Matters West Virginia and the Charleston Chapter of the NAACP, urged Manchin to support the filibuster reform. Even West Virginia sports figures like NBA great Jerry West and famed college football coach Nick Saban — who both endorsed Manchin in 2018 — urged him to enact voting rights legislation.
But Biden, who owes his presidency in large part to Black voters, must do more than simply hope that voters two years from now will punish Manchin and Sinema. In the first speech he gave after being declared the winner of the 2020 election, Biden promised point blank to the Black community, “You’ve always had my back and I’ll have yours.” At Biden’s news conference on Wednesday, Kristen Welker of NBC News asked Biden about Black voters criticizing him for not making voting rights a priority sooner, to which the President responded, “I’ve had their back my entire career. I’ve never not had their back.”
Biden now needs to show, not tell. For starters, he needs to travel to West Virginia and Arizona to build more grassroots support to pressure Manchin and Sinema.
Biden, who owes his presidency in large part to Black voters, must do more than simply hope that voters two years from now will punish Manchin and Sinema.
He should say no to the people Manchin and Sinema want nominated as federal judges or any people they seek to recommend to the Biden administration, a freeze-out that would diminish the two senators’ power and influence. He should also use his influence to prevent the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from helping fund these two senators' 2024 campaigns. Finally, Biden may have to very publicly support a primary challenge against them.
Black Americans were targeted by laws and violence for decades by bigots seeking to stop them from voting. It would be insult to the memory of those African Americans who were killed in the struggle for voting rights to allow these two senators to help roll back the progress made by those who sacrificed so much. And it would be an insult to all today who support Democrats of any race if these two senators can undermine our self-determination without paying a political price.
Biden has a choice to make: Stand with these two Democratic senators who have chosen to preserve the filibuster over democracy or stand with the communities that elected him. What’s it going to be?