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Democracy scholars on voting rights: 'Midnight is approaching'

"To lose our democracy but preserve the filibuster in its current form would be a short-sighted blunder that future historians will forever puzzle over."

Over the summer, as Democrats debated how best to approach the For the People Act, more than 100 American scholars who specialize in democracy studies unveiled a joint public statement. Their warning was unsubtle: The United States' system of government, the experts said, is "now at risk."

As part of their efforts, the scholars, many of whom have devoted much of their lives to studying the breakdowns in democracies abroad, pleaded with lawmakers to act. "We urge members of Congress to do whatever is necessary — including suspending the filibuster — in order to pass national voting and election administration standards," the experts wrote.

As regular readers may recall, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin derailed the For the People Act soon after.

For proponents of democracy and voting rights, that was the bad news. The good news, on the other hand, was that Manchin and a sizable group of other Senate Democrats reached a compromise agreement on a legislative alternative called the Freedom to Vote Act.

It's against this backdrop that an even larger number of democracy scholars are effectively pleading with the governing majority to pass the bill. Axios reported over the weekend:

"Defenders of democracy in America still have a slim window of opportunity to act. But time is ticking away, and midnight is approaching," according to more than 150 top scholars of U.S. democracy in a new push to temporarily suspend the Senate filibuster and pass voting rights protections on a simple majority vote.

The full letter from the scholars is online, and it's explicit in its endorsement of the Freedom to Vote Act, which they describe as "the most important piece of legislation to defend and strengthen American democracy since the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

The experts explained, "This is no ordinary moment in the course of our democracy. It is a moment of great peril and risk. Though disputes over the legitimacy of America's elections have been growing for two decades, they have taken a catastrophic turn since the 2020 election." In academic circles, this would generally be seen as hair-on-fire rhetoric:

"The partisan politicization of what has long been trustworthy, non-partisan administration of elections represents a clear and present threat to the future of electoral democracy in the United States. The history of other crisis-ridden democracies tells us this threat cannot be wished away. It must be promptly and forthrightly confronted. Failure to pass the Freedom to Vote Act would heighten post-election disputes, weaken government legitimacy, and damage America's international reputation as a beacon of democracy in the world. If Congress fails to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, American democracy will be at critical risk."

The question, of course, is not whether Senate Republicans will act to protect our democracy — they've already said they will refuse — but rather whether Senate Democrats are prepared to carve out an exception to the chamber's filibuster and pass the legislation through majority rule.

The democracy scholars are not neutral on the subject: "To lose our democracy but preserve the filibuster in its current form — in which a minority can block popular legislation without even having to hold the floor — would be a short-sighted blunder that future historians will forever puzzle over."

A growing number of Democratic senators, including many centrists, have come to a similar conclusion. Delaware's Tom Carper, for example, recently wrote, "No barrier — not even the filibuster — should stand in the way of our sacred obligation to protect our democracy." Maine's Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, also said, "[I]f forced to choose between a Senate rule and democracy itself, I know where I will come down."

What's less clear is whether Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema are prepared to come down the same way. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Sinema supports the For the People Act, but she's prepared to give the Republican minority veto power over the legislation, "signaling that a planned last-ditch voting rights push that party leaders and activists are planning for the closely divided Senate in the coming months is likely to fail."

Sinema specifically added that "bipartisan" changes are the ones that "stand the test of time" — despite the fact that the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was approved in a partisan fashion in 1869, and it's stood the test of time just fine.

The fight isn't officially over just yet, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has signaled his intention to "restore" majority rule to the chamber, at least on this one fundamental issue. But if Sinema doesn't budge, the For the People Act will die, and democracy's midnight will draw even closer.