Four months after killing Democrats’ first sweeping attempt at election reform, Mitch McConnell again held his Republican caucus together to quash a more modest version of the bill.
Wednesday’s completely party-line vote denied Democrats’ wishes to proceed to a debate on the Freedom to Vote Act, which would set national standards on voting rights, end partisan redistricting of congressional seats and make Election Day a federal holiday.
It was never expected to pass. Instead, it’s meant to showcase unified Republican opposition to any electoral changes and serve as a pressure point on moderate Democrats who remain reluctant to scrap the filibuster, the rule requiring 60 votes to pass most Senate legislation.
With only 50 votes Democrats can’t install new federal legislation meant to answer a wave of state laws being engineered to, in many cases, reduce access to the ballot box.
For his part, McConnell has dismissed Democrats’ latest drive as “fake drama…with slightly amended window dressing...that will go nowhere.” That was true on Wednesday as his GOP caucus stuck together, a vote President Joe Biden labeled “unconscionable.”
The future question is if this result will prompt centrist Democrats to favor taking the extraordinary measure of eliminating the filibuster to lower the threshold for passage of reforms ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, when Republicans are early favorites to reclaim the U.S. House and have an even shot at retaking the U.S. Senate.
“There was never any doubt that today’s vote would result in the third Republican filibuster of voting rights legislation. Unfortunately, there is still a doubt regarding what Democrats will do about it,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesperson for Fix Our Senate, a liberal group advocating for the elimination of the filibuster. “We’re at the moment of truth and we’re running out of time… If Democrats tackle the filibuster, they can deliver on their promises and take steps to restore and protect our democracy. Otherwise, the next year will be mired in legislative gridlock with Senator McConnell calling the shots and Democrats forced to make excuses to the voters that elected them.”
Wednesday’s Freedom to Vote Act was a replacement for this summer’s For The People Act, which West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said was too partisan. Democrats, led by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, went back to the drawing board, incorporating some of Manchin’s revisions for a slightly pared down version of the legislation.
The idea was to allow Manchin time to find Republicans who would climb on board to make the legislation bipartisan. As of Wednesday, he was unsuccessful in getting even one, let alone the 10 necessary to achieve passage.
“Every single Republican senator just blocked this chamber from having a debate, simply a debate on protecting Americans’ right to vote in free and fair elections,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer following the vote on the Senate floor. “If there’s anything, anything worth the Senate’s attention, it’s unquestionably this.”
Republicans complained the Freedom to Vote Act made it more difficult for states to maintain updated, accurate voting rolls, dictated redistricting criteria from the federal government and banned protections for absentee voting.
“It’s often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Call it cliché—but Democrats have made a believer out of me,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the national chairman of the Election Transparency Initiative and the former Republican attorney general of Virginia. “Democrats want to override state election laws they don’t like for political gain, rig the system in their favor, and silence millions of American voices to ensure they can’t lose for the next 100 years—by gutting the 60-vote filibuster.”
Democrats seem unfazed by the losses, with Schumer announcing he’d bring another voting bill -- The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act -- to the floor for a vote next week.
But right now, the public seems less motivated by the issue than Democratic activists.
A Quinnipiac University national survey of adults released this week found that Americans ranked election laws as the fifth most urgent issue facing the country, tied with climate change at 8 percent.
In a twist, a separate poll, conducted by Iowa-based pollster Ann Selzer, found supporters of former President Donald Trump as the most likely to be worried about democracy. A full 76% of Trump supporters told Selzer democracy is under major threat, but for very different reasons Democrats do.
These Republican voters still believe the false notion that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, a lie he continues to perpetuate without evidence. Democrats are attempting to erect new protections in order to prevent Trump and his acolytes from challenging ballots when they don’t like the outcome.