By Robert Reich
President Biden is in Georgia to give a speech on voting rights. It’s expected to be as hard-hitting as his speech last Thursday about Trump and the attack on the Capitol. Biden will push for reform of the senate filibuster to carve out voting rights from its 60-vote requirement, thereby opening the way for senate Democrats to enact the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act.
As you probably know, the Freedom to Vote Act would preempt state efforts to suppress votes and take over election machinery. The John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act would restore the “pre-clearance” requirement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (before the Supreme Court gutted it in 2013) which forced states with a history of discrimination – including Georgia — to get Justice Department approval before they changed their voting rules.
But Biden will need more than a hard-hitting speech to reform the filibuster and open the door for these two critical pieces of legislation. And his most important audience isn’t in Georgia, which already has two Democratic senators who will support him. It’s in West Virginia, whose senior Democratic senator is signaling he will not.
Georgia is, however, strategically important to voting rights in other ways. It has several major races this year, including Senator Raphael Warnock’s bid for reelection and Stacy Abrams’ campaign for governor against Republican incumbent Brian Kemp. (The only reason Democrats have a Senate majority right now is because they prevailed in both of Georgia’s runoff elections on January 5 of last year, electing Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff.)
Georgia also typifies what’s happening in several other southern states, such as North Carolina, Texas, and Arizona. Atlanta is becoming a major global economic hub, inhabited by upwardly-mobile and well-educated professionals who tend to vote for Democrats. Rural Georgia is a challenged economic backwater inhabited by less-educated voters who have been on a downward slide for years, making them highly susceptible to Trumpian racism and xenophobia, and Fox News’s conspiracy theories.
The shift toward cosmopolitan Atlanta hasn’t yet changed the composition of Georgia’s legislature, which is still dominated by Republicans. Shortly after Biden’s victory, it passed laws requiring additional ID for absentee voting, removing early voting sites, and allowing state takeovers of county elections. Georgia’s GOP lawmakers are now readying bills to nix voting touchscreen machines and expand probes into voter fraud, among other anti-democracy initiatives.
Hence the importance of national voting rights legislation, and of the Democrats’ move to reform the filibuster. Senate Democrats have given up on “Build Back Better” for now and are pivoting to voting rights, and a filibuster carveout for voting rights.
But Manchin, the Holdout-in-Chief, is standing in the way, just as he did on “Build Back Better.” He says the only way he’ll support a carveout from the filibuster for voting rights is if it’s “bipartisan.”
This is a bizarre argument, for several reasons. First, there’s no precedent requiring that changes in the filibuster rule be bipartisan. In recent decades the rule has been changed several times — most recently by McConnell and the Republicans, to confirm Supreme Court nominees with a bare majority – without bipartisan support.
It’s also bizarre because of America’s history of racism, which has not been fought through bipartisanship. Representative Jim Clyburn from South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, whose endorsement of Biden during the Democratic primaries put Biden over the top, put it bluntly:
“I am, as you know, a Black person, descended of people who were given the vote by the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The 15th amendment was not a bipartisan vote, it was a single party vote that gave Black people the right to vote. Manchin and others need to stop saying that because that gives me great pain for somebody to imply that the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution is not legitimate because it did not have bipartisan buy-in.”
Third, American democracy cannot be saved with “bipartisanship” when one party is out to destroy it. The filibuster is becoming less democratic by the day. As of now, just 41 Senate Republicans, representing only 21 percent of the country, are blocking laws supported by the vast majority.
Manchin (and Kyrsten Sinema, who isn’t even trying to explain her position on the filibuster or much of anything else) — now the darlings of Republican donors — apparently have more allegiance to the filibuster than to democracy. (By contrast, Senator Angus King, the Maine Independent who caucuses with the Democrats and had earlier rejected calls to reform the filibuster, says he has “concluded that democracy itself is more important than any Senate rule.”)
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, are making noises about changing the Electoral Count Act of 1887 – an arcane law that establishes the process for certifying presidential elections. (Manchin and Sinema are in talks with Republicans about this.) Make no mistake: This is nothing more than an attempt to give cover to Senate Republicans (and perhaps Manchin and Sinema), who want to be seen as doing something to reform elections but don’t want to protect voting rights.
The Electoral Count Act of 1887 could stand some more clarity, to be sure. Its ambiguities about which parts of state governments are authorized to confirm voting tallies and appoint electors were exploited by Trump in 2020, and could lead to a Constitutional crisis if he runs again in 2024. But if you think McConnell wants to prevent Republican state legislatures from substituting their views about who won a presidential election for the views of independent election officials and county boards, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
Biden can’t rely on Manchin for anything, and it’s impossible to knows what Sinema is up to. So to get his fiftieth vote to carve out voting rights from the filibuster, Biden may need the support of one or two of the few Republican senators who have shown a shred of interest in, or integrity on, voting rights.
My short list would include Susan Collins, who in 2015 joined John Lewis and other national leaders in Selma for the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday; and Lisa Murkowski, the only Republican who voted to bring the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to a vote last fall. I’d also reach out to Mitt Romney, who voted to convict Donald Trump in the first impeachment trial. (Not incidentally, Romney’s father, George Romney, was such a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 that when the Republican’s presidential nominee that year, Barry Goldwater, opposed it, Romney refused to support Goldwater’s candidacy.)
The purpose of trying to get one or two of these Republicans on board is not to get “bipartisan” support for carving out voting rights from the filibuster. It is to get a bare majority of the Senate to support American democracy.