Let’s Not Give Up On Voting Rights Just Yet

When President Barack Obama spoke at the late Rep. John Lewis's funeral, he called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic" that shouldn't stand in the way of passing necessary voting rights legislation. Democrats should honor Lewis's legacy, not Strom Thurmond's.

That should've been the last word on the filibuster, especially when it came to defending voting rights, but some key Democrats didn't get the message. Republicans are certain to block the “For the People Act," and Obama wasn't shy about reading them for filth. He's sort a subject matter expert on GOP obstruction.

During a tele-town hall with former Attorney General Eric Holder and grassroots activists, Obama slammed Republicans for using the filibuster to "stop the For the People Act from even being debated." Obama pointedly doesn't refer to a so-called “60-vote threshold," which only normalizes the filibuster. In truth, the filibuster is the result of a loophole in the Senate rules, which prior to 1917 didn't offer a method for ending debate and forcing a vote on a measure. The Senate originally required a two-thirds majority to end a filibuster, which was reduced to three-fifths (60 votes) in 1975, so the current rule is younger than I am.

Republicans naturally criticized Obama for describing the filibuster as a “Jim Crow relic," but even the Senate's official website details its shameful history in practice.

Filibusters proved to be particularly useful to southern senators who sought to block civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching bills. Not until 1964 did the Senate successfully overcome a filibuster to pass a major civil rights bill.

After white supremacists, some of whom carried Confederate flags and wore Nazi regalia, stormed the Capitol, Republicans used the filibuster to block a bipartisan investigation into the January 6 attack. The filibuster isn't a just a relic from Jim Crow days, but an active tool for restoring them.

"Think about this: In the aftermath of an insurrection, with our democracy on the line and many of the same Republican senators going along with the notion that somehow there were irregularities and problems with legitimacy in our most recent election, they're suddenly afraid to even talk about these issues and figure out a solution on the floor of the Senate," Obama said.

"That's not acceptable," he added.

People familiar with the Senate from Jimmy Stewart movies assume it's a place where elected officials hammer out solutions for the American people. However, Republicans aren't interested in “solutions," especially when the problem is their demonstrated contempt for democracy. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin declared his opposition to the "For the People Act" because it was supposedly too “partisan." (The bill is popular in West Virginia.) Manchin offered Republicans a compromise, which they rejected out of hand, seemingly because Stacey Abrams endorsed it. They immediately rechristened Manchin's proposal as the "Stacey Abrams proposal." You could imagine Manchin's precious bipartisanship existing in a world where he represents conservatives and Abrams liberals, but the modern GOP isn't a political party in the traditional sense. It's an insurgent movement whose governing ideology is power through obstruction, lies, and occasional violence. They have zero interest in grand bargains with Democrats, especially the ones who are Black women.

Obama noted that he makes it a point "not to weigh in on the day-to-day scrum in Washington," but voting rights legislation isn't just some partisan bill. He continued:

"We can't wait until the next election because if we have the same kinds of shenanigans that brought about Jan. 6, if we have that for a couple more election cycles, we're going to have real problems in terms of our democracy long-term."

OK, I probably wouldn't have referred to Donald Trump and the GOP's ongoing democracy-shredding Big Lie as “shenanigans," but his suburban grandma verbiage aside, Obama is spot on here. Our democracy — the almost 60-year-old one where Black people have been allowed to participate — is literally at stake. We can't just take the "L" and move on.

Holder stated on the call that he's confident there's a path forward for the bill to get passed. It's been suggested that the "For the People Act" failing will somehow "highlight Republican intransigence and potentially shake up gridlocked Senate politics." That doesn't seem like the most viable strategy, but Ezra Levin, co-founder of the Indivisible Project, advises that Democrats take this opportunity and go to the mattresses.

Last night, Rachel Maddow discussed how Democrats applied pressure on politicians during the GOP's 2017 effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Ultimately, three Republican senators — Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and (plot twist) John McCain — who'd originally opposed the ACA voted to keep it alive. No one saw that coming (especially McCain's vote), so maybe there's still hope for voting rights.

Levin told Maddow he doesn't expect a reform to the filibuster today, but instead, he expects Democrats to table the bill and then figure out their next move when they return from July 4 recess.

LEVIN: Politicians have a very scientific method for figuring out what they're going to do. They lick their finger. They stick it up in the air and they see which way the wind is going to blow. And that's how they're gonna determine what happens in July. If we are successful in changing the way the wind blows over the course of July 4th recess, they're gonna pick this up again, they're gonna amend the filibuster, and they're gonna pass these voting rights reforms.

That seems like a steep hill, but hope is better than hopelessness. No matter how intractable Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are, we can still follow the ACA playbook and apply pressure. They might not listen but we don't have to remain silent.

[NBC News / The Hill]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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