Good morning. Voting rights or the filibuster? Democrats will probably have to choose.
Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, is a swing vote in the Senate.Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times
A stark choice
It’s shaping up to be the most significant question about the new Democratic Senate: If forced to choose between the protection of voting rights and the protection of the filibuster, what will Democrats do?
They are now almost certain to face that decision.
Republican legislators in dozens of states are trying to make voting more difficult, mostly because they believe that lower voter turnout helps their party win elections. (They say it’s to stop voter fraud, but widespread fraud doesn’texist.) The Supreme Court, with six Republican appointees among the nine justices, has generally allowed those restrictions to stand.
“I don’t say this lightly,” Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, recently wrote. “We are witnessing the greatest roll back of voting rights in this country since the Jim Crow era.”
‘Their best opportunity’
The only meaningful way for Democrats to respond is through federal legislation, like the voting-rights bill that the House passed on Wednesday. Among other things, it would require states to register many eligible voters automatically; allow others to register on Election Day; hold at least 15 days of early voting; expand voting by mail; and allow people with completed criminal sentences to vote. The bill also requires more disclosure of campaign donations and restricts partisan gerrymandering.
But the bill seems to have no chance of winning the 60 votes in the Senate needed to overcome a filibuster. The Senate is divided 50-50 between the two parties (including two independents, who usually vote with Democrats). The bill will pass only if all 50 Senate Democrats agree to scrap or alter the filibuster, as they have the power to do.
“Proponents of eliminating the filibuster have said all along that their best opportunity to do so would come on a civil-rights bill, and this is the modern version,” Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, told me.
As Carl explained: “They intend to ratchet up the pressure on Democratic holdouts to overturning the filibuster by saying Republicans are using undemocratic means to hold up urgent protections for our democratic system. The votes still aren’t there, but opponents of the filibuster believe they are gaining ground.”
The swing votes include Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two of the most moderate Democratic senators, who have both expressed support for the filibuster.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats after passing the voting rights bill this week.Eric Baradat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Status quo? Not an option.
The stakes involve both small-d democratic principles and partisan power. If the Senate does not pass a voting-rights bill, large numbers of Americans may find voting so difficult that they are effectively disenfranchised. And Republicans may enjoy a large built-in advantage for years to come, preventing Democrats from holding power and passing laws on climate change, Medicare, taxes, the minimum wage and more.
“If we don’t pass a redistricting reform, our chance of keeping the House is very low,” David Shor, a Democratic strategist, told New York magazine.
Shor noted that gerrymandering has already helped create a situation in which Democrats don’t just need to win the national popular vote to hold House control; they need to win it by more than three percentage points. He also argued that a fight over voting rights and gerrymandering would benefit the party politically in the 2022 campaign.
There does not appear to be a compromise path on this issue. Democrats can overhaul the filibuster — and, by extension, transform the Senate, ushering in an uncertain era in which both parties would be able to pass more of the legislation they favor. Or Democrats can effectively surrender on voting rights. It’s one or the other.
To go deeper
Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic: “Future Americans could view the resolution of this struggle as a turning point in the history of U.S. democracy. The outcome could not only shape the balance of power between the parties, but determine whether that democracy grows more inclusive or exclusionary.”
Stacey Abrams talks about voting rights on the latest episode of “Sway.” And on “The Argument,” Jessica Anderson of Heritage Action for America makes the case for the filibuster, saying that it hasn’t prevented the two parties from passing big parts of their agendas in recent years.
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