Can Democrats Move Forward A Voting Rights Bill By Making A Moral Case For It?

Can Democrats Move Forward A Voting Rights Bill By Making A Moral Case For It?

Earlier this month, right before senators departed for their summer recess, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York made an 11th-hour plea to his colleagues to take up the omnibus voting rights bill, the For the People Act. But Republicans once again stopped that from happening. They also blocked two other provisions Schumer tried to put forward on voting rights — one bill that would have addressed partisan gerrymandering and another bill that tackled campaign finance.

At this point, Democrats know that Republicans are unlikely to support sweeping voting rights legislation. After all, Republicans in the last few months have twice blocked consideration of the For the People Act and have shown little appetite for negotiation, even scuttling West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s compromise bill. But that won’t stop Democrats from trying to take up voting legislation again in September.

The text of this newest bill isn’t public yet, but it will reportedly be a scaled-down version of the For the People Act and modeled after Manchin’s bill. It’s likely, though, that this bill will also fail. That’s in part because voting rights have become an intractable fight between the two parties: Democratic and Republican lawmakers view voting access fundamentally differently. Polls do suggest that there is at least some appetite among Americans to make certain aspects of voting easier, but whether Democrats can use that to their advantage and make a moral argument in favor of the government working to uphold democratic values, like voting rights, remains an open question.

It’s also a risky strategy for Democrats because there is no fail-safe plan if they fail to win over their Republican colleagues on this new bill. One final option might be to modify or eliminate the filibuster, but that, too, is a tall task for Democrats. That’s because while a majority of Democratic senators are in favor of changes to the filibuster to pass something on voting rights, not all members are. Notably, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are staunchly opposed to eliminating the filibuster and also hesitant to make any tweaks to it. Manchin at one point said he was open to a so-called “talking filibuster,” where senators wanting to block legislation would have to speak continuously on the Senate floor in order to maintain a filibuster, but it’s unclear whether that change would be taken up. More tellingly, Manchin shut down several ideas floated by proponents of filibuster reform in March.

But it’s not just Democratic holdouts in the Senate. Polls also show that Americans are largely opposed to abolishing the filibuster outright. According to an April Monmouth University poll, just 19 percent of U.S. adults said Congress should get rid of the filibuster entirely versus 38 percent who said Congress should keep it as is. Voters were open to tweaks, with 38 percent of respondents telling Monmouth they were open to keeping but reforming the filibuster. Similarly, when a group of voters in Morning Consult’s June survey were given a choice between passing legislation with a simple majority or with a 60-vote threshold, 45 percent favored tweaking the filibuster to a simple majority.

What’s troubling for Democrats is that those attitudes on filibuster reform barely shifted when respondents were asked about voting rights specifically, despite the fact that the filibuster has long been used to block civil rights legislation. That April Monmouth poll found, for instance, that Americans were evenly split on amending the filibuster specifically for voting legislation: Forty-six percent of respondents said they supported using the filibuster to block federal bills on election rules and voting rights, while another 46 percent said they were opposed. Another Vox/Data for Progress poll found pretty much the same thing: Fifty-two percent of likely voters either strongly or somewhat supported a change in Senate rules to pass the For the People Act

But while gutting the filibuster entirely or even tweaking it might be a hard sell for Democrats, Americans are broadly in favor of certain other measures that would make it easier to vote. And according to The New York Times, the newest voting bill is expected to include several of these provisions, such as mandating 15 days of early, in-person voting, including at least two Sundays; expanding vote-by-mail; ending partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts; and creating a national voter ID requirement. According to an April survey from the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, as well as 91 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, supported making early, in-person voting available to voters at least two weeks prior to Election Day. A June Monmouth University poll also found bipartisan support for making early voting easier, with 89 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans in favor. And according to that Pew survey, voter ID laws were also incredibly popular among both Democrats and Republicans, with 61 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners and 93 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners supporting requiring all voters to show government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot.

But, of course, just because something is popular with Republican voters doesn’t mean Republicans in Congress will back it — after all, we saw that happen with the COVID-19 stimulus package earlier this year. And Republicans so far have shown little interest in passing any type of voting legislation at the federal level. In fact, when Schumer tried to get the chamber to debate voting rights proposals earlier this month, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas accused Democrats of trying to “strike down virtually every reasonable voter integrity law in the country.”

Indeed, GOP politicians appear more focused on ensuring no one who is not eligible to vote votes rather than expanding access to the ballot. Just consider the number of restrictive voting bills being passed by GOP-controlled legislatures at the state level. This, though, could be dangerous for Republicans. They gained among Black men and Hispanic Americans in 2020, but if the perception among these voters that Republicans don’t want people like them to vote grows, that could negatively impact their overall opinion of the GOP. Moreover, Black and Hispanic voters are the two groups of voters most likely to be adversely affected by restrictive voting bills at the state level.

Ultimately, though, one of the biggest reasons why compromise between the two parties is so unlikely is because Republicans and Democrats view voting rights differently. And polls show a huge partisan split on whether voting is a privilege or a fundamental right. 

According to a July report from Pew, an overwhelming majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners (78 percent) said that they view voting as a “fundamental right” for every U.S. citizen, while only 32 percent of Republican and Republican leaners felt the same. Instead, Republicans are more likely to view voting as a privilege that can be limited (67 percent of Republican and Republican leaners felt this way, versus 21 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners). There’s a racial divide here, too, with Black (77 percent), Hispanic (63 percent) and Asian Americans (66 percent) being far more likely than white Americans (51 percent) to say voting is a fundamental right.1 Bottom line: Democrats are much more likely than Republicans (70 percent to 32 percent, according to a June Morning Consult/Politico poll) to think restricting voting access is a major threat to American democracy.

So because of all this, it’s highly unlikely Republicans and Democrats will meet in the middle on voting rights legislation this fall. Of course, if Republicans again stymie Democratic efforts to debate a voting rights bill next month, Democrats might have enough ammo to tweak the filibuster. But even that might have negative political repercussions for Democrats. That’s because both Democratic voters and elected officials don’t yet have a huge appetite for changing the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. All of this means that Democrats are likely to keep facing an uphill climb in enacting legislation to protect and expand voting access.

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