In the wake of Democratic victories in the 2020 elections, Republican officials at the state level spent much of 2021 focused on a pernicious goal: imposing new voting restrictions. Congressional Democrats came to the obvious conclusion that this dramatic campaign against voting rights — by most measures, the most serious since the Jim Crow era — necessitated a federal response.
In all, going into this week, the Democratic majority tried four times to advance legislation to protect voting rights. Four times, the GOP minority refused. Last night, as NBC News reported, it happened for a fifth time.
Senate Republicans voted in unity Wednesday to block the advancement of a package of sweeping election legislation pushed by Democrats in a tense showdown over national voting rights. The vote on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was 49-51. It broke evenly along party lines....
There have been some suggestions of late that bipartisan progress might've been possible if Democrats had tempered their ambitions and pursued more modest legislation. I've never found those arguments persuasive. The Freedom to Vote Act was crafted as a compromise measure — far more narrowly focused than the original For the People Act — that specifically included provisions designed to garner Republican support.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act restores the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, which used to receive strong GOP backing.
And yet, last night, the grand total of Republican senators willing to support the voting rights package was zero.
Democrats responded by trying to execute the so-called "nuclear option," which would've allowed the majority to pass the legislation by majority rule, but as expected, they fell two votes short: West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema voted with the GOP to leave the existing filibuster intact.
Some of the overnight commentary has focused on the scope of the defeat for President Joe Biden, who invested considerable energy into this issue, and Democratic leaders who spent seven months on a legislative effort that faced long odds from the start.
And while those analyses aren't wrong, they are incomplete: This wasn't simply a legislative dispute between two parties with competing goals; this was a fight over a foundational issue of our democracy. At the heart of this effort was a core question — Should Americans be able to participate in their own system of government through free and fair elections? — which one of the major parties answered the wrong way.
Did Biden lose the fight? Sure. Did Democratic leaders in the House and Senate come up short? Obviously. But no one suffered a bigger loss last night than the American voters who will confront new hurdles as they try to cast ballots in the fall.
As the dust settles, there are a handful of related questions to consider:
Who's to blame? There's been considerable focus on Sinema and Manchin in recent months, and for good reason: They were given an opportunity to join with their party on a plan to pass these bills, and they chose not to. But as important as their role has been, no one should look past the fact that 50 Republican senators were also given an opportunity to protect voting rights, and 50 Republican senators refused.
Did Democrats waste the better part of a year on a bill that was doomed? It's not an unreasonable question. Presidents only get so much political capital, and Biden spent a lot of his on a longshot. But imagine the alternative: As Republicans relentlessly imposed new voting restrictions, could Democrats have credibly sat back and done nothing? As voters looked to a Democratic-led Congress for help, could the governing majority have realistically shrugged its shoulders and expressed indifference?
As Jon Chait put it yesterday, "Trying and failing to protect voting rights is a bad plan, but it beats the alternative."
What's more, let's not forget that when this fight began, there were more than a few skeptics among Senate Democrats about the nuclear option and passing voting rights protections through majority rule. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did an enormous amount of work and locked down 48 votes for a bold and ambitious strategy. By most measures, that's a striking success the party can build on.
What now? The Justice Department will likely do what it can, and the White House is apparently exploring some executive actions, but voting rights in the United States will be much worse on Election Day 2022 than it was on Election Day 2020.
But The New York Times' Ezra Klein raised a compelling point overnight: "This isn't the sort of defeat that should discourage. This is the sort that should mobilize." Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told Rachel something similar on last night's show, emphasizing the fact that with just two more Democratic senators, landmark legislating on voting rights will be possible.
In the meantime, however, I find myself dwelling on something Dr. Martin Luther King said in 1963: "The tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting."
Nearly six decades later, far too little has changed.