For the third time this year, Senate Democrats have failed to push through a voting-rights bill. In each case, they knew at the outset that the effort would fail. One thing they haven’t yet tried: advancing a measure with at least a chance of winning enough support from Republicans to overcome the filibuster.
Their first effort was a bundle of political reforms that not even all Democrats supported. After finally accepting its fate, they scaled it back to focus on issues more directly related to voting — such as requiring states to offer vote-by-mail, conduct at least two weeks of early voting, expand the types of identification accepted at the polls, and draw legislative district lines according to nonpartisan principles. The bill, called the Freedom to Vote Act, would also have restored voting rights to ex-offenders and provided public funds for campaigns through matching donations. Reasonable people can disagree on these provisions, but taken together, they were still dead on arrival with Republicans in Congress.
Last week, a new measure ran into the same wall of opposition. Again, Democrats knew it would. Republicans blocked a bill that would have restored the requirement on states with a history of discrimination to gain “preclearance” from Washington before changing their voting rules — a requirement that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. One Republican senator, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, backed the measure, but there was never any prospect of its succeeding in the current climate (notwithstanding the willingness of more Republicans to go along with it in the 2000s).
The new politics of election reform require Democrats to change course if they hope to accomplish anything. They should by all means continue to disagree vigorously with their opponents and say why they’re wrong. But this needn’t rule out an approach that might conceivably yield a result: Challenge Republicans to help frame a narrower elections bill that could pass with bipartisan support.
Democrats are acting as if they need to compromise only with members of their own party, while clinging to the hope that the filibuster might fall. This isn’t serving the country, and it’s jeopardizing what President Joe Biden once called a central goal — bringing the country back together.
Early on, Biden had a chance to build bipartisan goodwill on voting. He could have rejected the original Democratic bill and invited a bipartisan working group to come up with an alternative that would both increase access to the ballot (as Democrats want) and improve the integrity of the ballot (as Republicans want). To be sure, Republican complaints about ballot integrity are overblown, but Democrats have engaged in their own over-the-top rhetoric. Instead of standing up to it, Biden fell in line, parroting the incendiary charge that Republicans are advancing “Jim Crow 2.0” in the states. Rather than mediating, he inflamed.
This failure leaves standing the most serious threat to voting rights. Republican-controlled states are passing laws that undermine the independence of election boards and supervisors, handing greater control of the certification process to legislatures. That is a truly worrisome prospect. It should have been the Democrats’ focus from the start. Had it been, they may well have found Republican votes for a bill that protected election results from partisan manipulation.
It isn’t too late. Provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act aimed at reining in this activity — such as prohibiting the firing of local election officials without cause and setting out requirements for counting provisional ballots — can and should be reconsidered in a standalone measure. Passing any kind of election bill as the midterms approach won’t be easy, but the issue is too important to shelve. Biden and the Democrats should focus on the essential and try again.