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18 January 2022

Joe Biden’s failure on voting rights could cost the Democrats the White House

In the face of increasingly repressive systems, it’s not enough to tell people to make more effort to vote.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – The right to vote is under attack in the United States.

This is not news. From the start of 2021 until early December, at least 19 states passed over 30 laws to restrict access to voting. In Florida and Georgia, this even took the form of barring the distribution of snacks and water to voters waiting to cast their ballots. Elsewhere, the windows to apply for and return a mail ballot were shortened. Polling place availability and early voting days have been reduced in some states, too. All of this follows the 2020 presidential election. The former president Donald Trump claims, still, that that election was stolen, and has particularly focused on votes in cities with large black American populations, which he casts as illegitimate.

There are two bills before Congress that could, if they passed, help protect every eligible American’s right to vote. The first, the Freedom to Vote Act, would ensure a minimum national standard of voting access. The second, the John Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act, would prevent discriminatory practices in places where discrimination is widespread (the 1965 Voting Rights Act had previously made sure that states with a history of discrimination could not make changes to their electoral processes without federal approval, but the Supreme Court ruled that that protection was no longer necessary in 2013).

These bills have passed the House of Representatives, where Democrats have a narrow majority. They now must pass the Senate. However, the Senate requires 60 votes to adopt most legislation, and there are only 50 Democrats. That means Democrats need to find ten Republicans to support the bills. This is almost certainly not going to happen as the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has said that, historically, legislation impacting elections is partisan, and care needs to be taken not to trample the rights of the voter. This is, of course, perfectly hypocritical, given that the laws restricting the right to vote are being passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures, but the reality remains that McConnell has taken this position and it is extremely unlikely that ten Republicans will find the moral courage to disagree with him.

[See also: The four-pronged attack on American democracy]

That leaves Democrats with one choice: to remove the filibuster, the rule that requires 60 votes to end debate and take a decision. All 50 Democrats would need to vote to do so. On Thursday (20 January), Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, delivered a dramatic floor speech in which she said that passing the laws without bipartisan support would “worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country”. “We have but one democracy,” she said. “We can only survive, we can only keep her, if we do so together.” This is essentially to say that getting votes from Republicans in the Senate is more important than protecting every American’s access to the polls.

If things continue in this manner, the Senate will not pass voting rights legislation. And if Congress does not pass voting rights legislation, here is what will happen.

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Voters and activists will be told to vote harder. There were already reports last year that this was the Biden administration’s response to stalled voting rights legislation: that they would simply need to out-organise the repressive laws.

[See also: Joe Biden and the spectre of Donald Trump]

Let us leave aside that voting rights groups already feel let down by the Biden government – they skipped his recent speech on the issue in Atlanta, Georgia. Let us ignore the fact that voters, in this scenario, are being asked to turn out in enormous numbers and figure out increasingly repressive systems in order to keep in power people who could not manage to pass legislation to protect their right to vote. People staying home is at least as likely an outcome, costing the Democrats seats in Congress in 2022 and possibly the White House in 2024.

Failing to pass voting rights and instead telling an electorate to vote harder forgets that people turning out to vote has, historically, not worked on its own to protect enfranchisement. The Jim Crow era did not magically end because enough people tried sufficiently hard to vote. It is not to downplay the tremendous courage that people, particularly black Americans, displayed to say that it took federal legislation in the form of the Voting Rights Act to facilitate their participation.

If a system is repressive, the repressed cannot participate their way into something better. If Congress does not pass voting rights legislation, 2022 will see a host of more restrictive laws. Several state legislatures had pre-filed just such bills for this year before 2021 even ended. That is what will happen: some people will give up, and others will be forced out.

At some point perhaps those who thought the filibuster was more important will turn around and ask themselves what happened to their democracy. Perhaps then it will become clear that “vote harder” and “out-organise” are not answers. But, then again, perhaps not.

[See also: The 6 January attacks never ended]

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