Voting rights also deserve a majority vote


This week the Senate figured out how to get around the filibuster to raise the debt ceiling by a majority vote. Yes, lawmakers said, there are Senate rules and practices, but when the time calls for it, key laws must be put to a vote.

Another crisis demands a similar response: the concerted nation-wide effort to sabotage our elections. Voting suppression, gerrymandering, intimidation of election officials, and massive election theft by partisan state legislatures all threaten our democracy. Congress has the power to stop this, if it has the political will.

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Advancement of Voting Rights Act were passed by the House and have majority support in the Senate. President Biden is ready to sign. The only remaining obstacle is the Republican minority, stubbornly wielding an obstruction to prevent even debate. Where is the workaround for voting rights?

Remember that obstruction is not in the Constitution. In fact, the Framers were well aware of the dangers of a qualified majority requirement. This is what they had over the years of the Articles of Confederation, and they saw how it can cripple government.

For much of the country’s history, filibuster has been rarely used, but has been deployed by southern advocates of apartheid to end voting and civil rights bills. Over time, lawmakers have frequently changed the rules and practices. In 1975, senators reduced the number of votes needed to close debate.

But over the past quarter of a century, partisans have started to filibuster, well, everything, and do it just by raising an objection rather than talking until the end of the night. The result, in fact, was a 60 vote requirement for the legislation. It is impractical. It gives a minority faction the power to block any action. Rather than encouraging compromise, it causes polarization.

The Senate therefore provided for exceptions or created workarounds. Today, a majority vote is used to confirm Supreme Court justices, lower court judges and executive officials. A majority can pass the budget reconciliation bill, as we all know now. But it’s not just these high profile topics. Trade agreements are adopted by majority vote. The same goes for the closures of military bases. In fact, 161 exceptions to the 60 vote requirement were created by rules or laws between 1969 and 2014.

The ironic result, in fact, is that roughly the only bills that are currently still subject to filibuster are civil rights and voting rights bills – just as they were in the height of the resistance of the South in the 1950s. (These bills don’t cost a lot of money – if they did, they could be part of the reconciliation.)

This fact has an ugly story behind it. Between 1917 and 1994, 30 measures were killed by the filibuster. Half dealt with civil rights, such as authorizing federal investigations and lynching prosecutions. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was only passed after 60 days of debate.

It is 2021, not 1951. The dysfunctional Senate procedures are not sacrosanct. The voting rights are. At various times throughout history, lawmakers have taken steps to strengthen the Senate so that it can act in the public interest. As the gerrymander states with abandon, as lawmakers prepare to pass the next wave of voter suppression laws starting in January, a lot is at stake. Yes, refusing to raise the debt ceiling would be catastrophic for the country. Losing our democracy too.


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