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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer knew the massive voting-rights package was condemned to failure when he put it on the legislative calendar yesterday. But he wanted to show everyone in his Democratic caucus what that felt like: a gut punch of a defeat for a package that ostensibly everyone in his party and even some Republicans supported on its merits.
The move also served to highlight for voters where Democrats and Republicans stand on the voting rights issue, especially in communities who feel their right to vote is under assault. It’s easy to blame two Democrats who held firm against side-stepping the filibuster to advance the legislation, but the lack of Republican leadership on the issue cannot be ignored—and likely won’t be by voters of color.
Democrats were chasing increased transparency on political cash and expanded chances for less-reliable voters to have their voices counted. Republicans, meanwhile, are fine with the way things are, and maybe even seeking a bit of return to pre-COVID-19 times to tamp down some of that early- and mail-in voting introduced during the pandemic that they historically have opposed.
That highly simplified summary of what’s unfolding on the Hill is going to be an election-year narrative. So, as the Democrats’ 735-page doorstopper of an agenda—stitched together by combining a pair of election bills into one, with a few trims here and there—barrels along towards its inevitable end this evening, Democrats were already turning to state legislatures as the next front in the battle over whose votes are counted or not.
As voting- and civil-rights advocates have been screaming for months, things are not going so well for dear ol’ democracy in state capitals, either. Last year, at least 19 states took steps that made the net result of voting more difficult, according to tracking at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. In all, lawmakers considered more than 440 bills that would make it harder to cast a ballot. More than 150 of those are still actively under consideration, and looking ahead, at least 13 new restrictive bills are pre-loaded in state legislatures’ systems.
And don’t even start on the efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election that still continue—some with frustrating success. Trump and his allies in Arizona are still trying to decertify the results that gave Biden a narrow victory. Pennsylvania Republicans are considering changing the state constitution to trigger an audit of results that lawmakers don’t like. Every step down this path further erodes faith in the American experiment—and is laying the groundwork for a potential repeat of the Jan. 6 failed insurrection.
It’s a lot of time and effort spent on a problem that even the most critical voices of American democracy have trouble claiming is a real problem. Even as then-President Donald Trump was trying to cajole fellow conservatives to “find” him votes and to plant the seed of The Big Lie, his own deeply conservative Attorney General, Bill Barr, conceded that there was no significant fraud.
But among rank-and-file activists and reliable consumers of conservative media, this is a ticking crisis that needs to be confronted, along with the ghouls of Critical Race Theory and parental exclusion. And Republicans have a carte blanche in a lot of legislative office buildings to feed the mob that’s already consumed a lot of bad information. Of the 98 legislative chambers in the country, Republicans have control over 61 of them and have total control of state government in 23 states. (Democrats have 37 legislative chambers and run 15 states.)
The states that have opened their election playbooks for review are reliably red, where no amount of legendary—and fact-challenged—Kennedy-caliber ballot stuffing could make a difference. Wyoming, which broke for Trump by 44 points, has introduced new restrictions to voting access. So have Trump strongholds of Idaho (36 points) Oklahoma (33 points) and Arkansas (28 points). Of the 19 states that made changes, only five broke in Biden’s favor. For the shameless party operatives—in both parties, to be fair—there is an electoral advantage to be had by shaping the edges of the battlefield.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris last week visited Georgia to warn about pernicious tweaks in state laws that make it tougher for some communities to vote. Democrats at the U.S. Capitol have been sounding the alarm as state lawmakers and Governors have started adding voter-fraud task forces and special policing units to chase a crime that, statistically, does not exist. An exemplary Associated Press investigation of every voter-fraud complaint in the battleground states found fewer than 475 suspect ballots cast in 2020.
During the voting bill’s last ill-fated hours in Washington, Democrats were fuming that they were powerless to deliver on their campaign promises because two of their own refused to change the rules and allow them to pass legislation through the Senate with 60 votes. The trouble-makers of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema may be some of the most loathed people inside the Democratic caucus for some time to come and already are getting primary chatter.
To be fair, going nuclear on the filibuster—even narrowly—is a risky step, regardless of the party. Democrats say they are sick of letting even the easy dunks like voting rights go unplayed, but there is absolutely zero belief among progressives that Republican Leader Mitch McConnell won’t do the same should the GOP claim a unified government after the 2024 elections. It’s easy to see chaos coming.
All of which is to say this: if you’re worried about being able to cast your ballot this fall for the midterms, you’d be better served worrying about what’s happening in Carson City, Nev., than watching the Capitol here in D.C. In state government buildings, things are actually getting done, whereas lawmakers in Washington are doing a whole lot of talking about legislation that two rogue Democrats are tanking for fear of looking partisan. It makes for drama at the Capitol, for sure. But the fundamental right to participate in democracy is being defined closer to home than the Hill. It might be worth checking-in with your capitals with plenty of time ahead of voter-registration deadlines.
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