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Democrats' Failed Attempt to Pass Voting Rights, Explained

If you're looking for an explanation of Democrats' strategy to strengthen voting rights, good luck with that. Here's what happened with the For the People Act.

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Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

Senate Republicans blocked one of the widest-ranging federal attempts to strengthen national voting rights on Tuesday, preventing Democrats from advancing the For the People Act toward becoming federal law.

CNN reports:

A procedural vote to open debate on the legislation was defeated by a tally of 50-50, falling short of the 60 votes needed to succeed. Democrats were united in favor of the vote after securing support from Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, but Republicans were united against it, causing the measure to fail to advance.

Democratic senators have pitched the legislation a necessary counter to state-level efforts to restrict voting access, but Republicans have decried it as a partisan power grab and a federal overreach into state voting and election systems.

The bill’s failure to move forward will force Democrats to confront the question of what else they can do to press the issue and will likely trigger a fresh outpouring of calls from progressives to eliminate the legislative filibuster, which requires most bills to get the votes of at least 10 Republicans given the current Senate makeup. The votes are not there, however, to eliminate the filibuster with Manchin and several other moderate Democrats opposed


But what do all of these words actually mean? Is this fight for voting rights over? What’s the next step? What are Democrats doing to try to win this battle? And why are they like this?

What is the For the People Act?

The proposed legislation would essentially make it easier for citizens to register to vote for federal elections by offering online registration, automatic registration at government agencies like the DMV and universities, and provide same-day registration. It would also set standards for provisional ballots, redistricting, voting by mail and absentee ballots, while bolstering transparency in campaign funding.


Why is this law necessary?

Because Republicans don’t want Black people to vote.

Until recently, conservatives weren’t concerned about long lines, election security, missing votes, machines malfunctioning in Black neighborhoods or Russian interference in the 2016 election. For some reason, they are suddenly obsessed over the “integrity of the ballot.”


Since the 2020 election, at least 43 state legislatures have introduced bills that disproportionately affect poor and nonwhite voters’ access to the ballot.

Why didn’t they pass these laws before now?

Because they couldn’t.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required certain jurisdictions (the racist places) to get permission from the Justice Department before enacting new voting laws. In 2013, the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision determined that the VRA used an outdated formula to determine which places were racist. Until Congress comes up with a new formula, the Voting Rights Act is essentially useless.


For four years, Republicans had control of the Senate and the House of Representatives and did nothing. They didn’t introduce legislation to come up with a new formula. They didn’t try to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. Now that Democrats have control of both chambers, they decided to do something.

The For the People Act is that “something.”

One of the provisions of the For the People Act would come up with a new formula to decide on the racist places, thereby reinstituting preclearance.


Why are Republicans opposed to this bill?


I’m not saying that Republicans are racist, I’m just saying that Republicans live in the racist places. Here is the Department of Justice’s map of places that required preclearance:

Image for article titled Democrats' Failed Attempt to Pass Voting Rights, Explained
Illustration: Department of Justice

Every single state legislature on that map except Virginia has advanced legislation making it harder to vote.

If Democrats have both chambers of Congress, why can’t they stop it?

Because Democrats are bad at doing things.

The legislation has passed the House of Representatives so it’s up to Senate Democrats, whose efforts to pass the For the People Act is being stymied by a Republican filibuster.


But if there’s a filibuster, then what can they do?

  1. Get 60 votes: Sixty senators can override a filibuster. Because there are 50 Democrats in the Senate, this means Democrats would have to find at least 10 Republicans who don’t mind Black people having the right to vote.
  2. End the filibuster: The filibuster is not a law, it’s just a thing someone made up and put in the Senate rulebook. They could eliminate it today with a simple majority vote and pass the bill.
  3. Make Republicans actually filibuster: Because the Senate rules only require a majority vote, Democrats could require anyone who opposed a piece of legislation to stand up in front of Congress and talk until they either got too tired or 60 members voted for cloture, which is a Latin word that means “shut the fuck up because we finna vote.”
  4. Lower the filibuster threshold: With a majority vote on changing the Senate rules, Dems could lower the threshold required to override a filibuster to 55 votes.
  5. Put the filibuster ball in their court: Currently, only one person has to object to a bill to prevent a floor vote. Instead of requiring 60 votes to override a single member’s filibuster, Senate Democrats could require anyone who didn’t like a bill to wrangle 40 votes to stop the legislation. In this scenario, the math doesn’t change, but the opposing party must be united to stop the democratic process.
  6. Go nuclear on voting rights only: Maybe they don’t have to kill the filibuster or even abolish it. According to some political scholars, Democrats could, “by simple majority, vote to adopt a procedure whereby all future voting rights measures need only a simple majority to pass.” Republicans altered the filibuster to confirm Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Democrats also excluded presidential nominees from the filibuster rules.

Why won’t Dems choose one of these options?

White people.

...And Tim Scott (R-S.C.)

Senator Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) both of whom are white, oppose abolishing or altering the filibuster. Manchin and Sinema say they favor a bipartisan solution, so Dems’ only option is to recruit 10 Republican senators to support the For the People Act.


Republicans have given no indication that they are willing to work through their differences with the bill. In fact, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has specifically said Senate Republicans won’t vote for voting rights legislation.

That’s not fair to Tim Scott. If he voted for the bill, it still would have no chance as long as the filibuster exists in its current form, right?

Not necessarily.

Imagine how it would look if the Senate’s lone Black Republican broke ranks and supported the For the People Act. Maybe it wouldn’t matter. After all, Republicans are called racist all the time. But Tim Scott’s complicity enables the GOP to argue that their opposition to voting restrictions has nothing to do with race.


And yes, the onus for the Democrats lies mostly with Sinema, Manchin and those who oppose changing the filibuster, but as the Bible says: “White people are gonna white.”

I don’t think the Bible says that.

Maybe not your Bible.

My Bible is different. My Bible shows that the Democratic Party is either too inept or unwilling to fight for Black people like Republicans fight for white people. It shows how they won’t use every available weapon in their arsenal to protect Black people. They are allowing two people in their own party to subvert democracy while Mitch McConnell has his people in lockstep.


Oh wait, that isn’t a Bible. It’s a history book.

My bad.

Is there anything the Democratic Party can do?

Yes. They can use the Justice Department to sue the individual states who passed these restrictive voting laws but the federal courts are packed with Trump justices. They can try to sneak voting rights into another bill but the GOP is treating Democratic legislation like they’re playing Paul George in the fourth quarter–they don’t care if we call foul.


So if there was no way to pass the bill without altering or abolishing the filibuster, and they can’t get 10 Republicans on board, then what was yesterday about?