Why A Failed Voting Rights Push Is A Setback For Democracy — And Democrats

Why A Failed Voting Rights Push Is A Setback For Democracy — And Democrats

The carefully calibrated unity formed among the Democratic Party and its base on voting rights was short-lived. After the White House announced earlier this month that President Biden and Vice President Harris would travel to Georgia to give an impassioned plea on preserving the right to vote — despite not having enough voting power to take any meaningful action — activists mounted a lobbying blitz encouraging leadership to stay in Washington, D.C.

Their frustration was obvious: After over a year of Democrats repeating platitudes about the importance of voting rights and preserving American democracy, Congress had accomplished nothing on that front. And the trip to Georgia, according to some activists, was just another example of leadership doing nothing more than paying lip service to being pro-democratic. 

“We don’t need even more photo ops. We need action, and that action is in the form of the John Lewis Voting Rights [Advancement] Act as well as the Freedom to Vote Act, and we need that immediately,” Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, recently told reporters.

But that didn’t happen. The party’s endgame for its current voting rights bills — to use a legislative loophole to bypass an initial Republican filibuster and debate a mash-up of the original Freedom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — failed on Wednesday. Without any GOP support, Democrats were unable to clear the 60-vote threshold required to pass legislation. (The party’s final effort to impose a “talking filibuster” — which would allow the bill to pass with just a simple majority — is expected to fail as well, as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have refused to back down in their opposition to altering Senate procedure.) 

As I’ve written time and time again, Democrats knew that this outcome was inevitable. They never had any Republican support, but due to the reality of the Senate math, many Democrats seemed to think their last resort was to instead make a moral push for the legislation. The timing, at least they thought, was opportune. On the cusp of a new year, the renewed push fell near two key dates associated with the pro-democracy movement: the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. During his speech in Georgia, Biden invoked past civil rights leaders and encouraged senators to remember how their votes would go down in history. “Every senator — Democratic, Republican and independent — will have to declare where they stand, not just for the moment, but for the ages,” he declared. But these messages proved futile and, ultimately, backfired

Now, Democrats are left having to answer for how and why they failed repeatedly, and it’s not clear whether activists and Black voters, who’ve long pushed for movement on the voting rights front, will forgive the party easily. “We certainly understand the frustration of our local partners here in Georgia,” Arndrea Waters King recently told MSNBC. “It’s been a long year of a lot of things not being done, and we stand and we share that frustration.”

Omnibus voting rights legislation isn’t the first big bill from Democrats to meet its demise, however. In fact, as Biden nodded to during a press conference on Wednesday, there is a long list of Democratic policy failures at this point, including the Build Back Better Act, immigration reform, police reform and raising the minimum wage, to name a few. Most of these bills, too, would have had the biggest impact on voters of color, who helped salvage Biden’s once-dying campaign in 2020.

It’s not clear where Democrats go from here, either. Given the lack of intraparty agreement on nuking or tweaking the filibuster, it’s possible that Democrats won’t be able to pass anything else Biden campaigned on. On the voting rights front, there’s been scattered talks of reforming the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the loopholes and ambiguities of which encouraged Trump and his allies to try to exploit the counting of electoral votes and prevent Biden from becoming president. But both the White House and parts of the Democratic base have said that reforming the ECA isn’t enough. 

Even more troubling for Democrats is that the party’s inaction comes amid Biden’s presidential approval rating lagging as well as dwindling midterm enthusiasm among their voters. According to a July 2021 survey from Morning Consult, less than half of Democratic voters (48 percent) said they were “very” or “extremely” enthusiastic about the upcoming midterms, down 5 percentage points from when they’d been asked the same question the previous April. Per the Pew Research Center, Biden’s job approval among all groups surveyed — including Democrats and Black voters — decreased between July and September of last year, too. 

Based on past midterm cycle trends, we’d expect at least some of this lack of enthusiasm among the Democratic base. What’s troublesome for the party, though, is that key constituencies who have long voted blue, like Black voters, are fed up and there’s evidence suggesting that their support for the president is waning. Moreover, there’s not an obvious piece of legislation that Democrats can pass next that could — possibly — boost support among their base.

Put another way: Biden and his fellow Democrats are in a real conundrum if they want to retain their existing majorities in Congress. And based on the recent backlash to the party’s most recent push around voting rights, the preservation of American democracy isn’t the only thing Democrats stand to lose if they fail to take action and let their voters down.

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