NASHVILLE, TN – In what voting rights advocates are calling “a now or never moment for American democracy”, the U.S. Senate is about to vote on the For The People Act (H.R.1). It is the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. H.R.1 would expand voter registration, limit partisan gerrymandering, limit the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants to fight corruption.
Former President Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, but H.R.1 might actually do it. Meanwhile, in Texas and Arizona a groundswell of grassroots opposition has risen against bills that would set voting rights back to the Jim Crow era.
“It’s a struggle between people who believe in democracy over authoritarianism. It’s people who believe in facts, data, and science over lies and conspiracy theories. It’s people who believe in justice and fairness over pure political power and greed. That’s what the divide is,” said Alex Gulotta, National Interim Director, of All Voting Is Local.
Most Americans support what H.R.1 would do– transform American politics—but it is not clear if most elected officials want that. Big money fills campaign coffers and incumbents rely on tons of cash to get reelected. Senator Mitch McConnell has marshaled his 50 members to vote against the bill. Congressional Republicans in both houses have consistently opposed President Biden’s legislative agenda.
What they mean by bipartisanship is blocking anything they don’t like and forcing Democrats to give ground. And so far, they remain united in opposition to H.R.1.
The Democrats only have 49 votes because Sen. Joe Manchin (D, W.VA.) said last week that he would vote against the bill. Given the 51-49 split against H.R.1, mainstream commentators have largely pronounced it D.O.A. After a ZOOM meeting with Republicans and civil rights leaders on Monday, Manchin indicated the bill might get Republican support if it dropped a prohibition on photo voter IDs, allow purging of voter rolls to continue, and abandon the idea of publicly financed elections.
Manchin’s proposed “compromise” is cynically bi-partisan—it appeals to the lowest common denominator of both parties—their insatiable addiction to campaign cash. In short, Manchin thinks any attempt to reform campaign finance laws would sink the bill.
But a civil rights attorney at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program said the landmark bill won’t be negotiated away piece by piece and that the bill could pass as it is. All it would take is one Republican to break ranks. “We keep focusing on 60 votes and actually 50 senators could make a decision to change what the rules are if we are able to an make a compelling case that this needs to get over the line,” said Elizabeth Hira.
Hira said the President, Vice President, Speaker Pelosi, and Senator Chuck Shumer are all trying to figure out what to do. “The bad guys want you to give up because then they definitely win. So your leaders need to keep hearing from you to keep beating that drum and make it possible,” she said.
Opposition to the bill is not coming from voters–68% are in favor–but from the Republican leadership who are saying it will never pass. McConnell is not budging. He announced Tuesday he would block the bill in its entirety when it comes up for a vote. That may force the Democrats to take a procedural vote to kill the filibuster.
“We know that in 48 states people are fighting voter suppression bills unlike we’ve seen since the civil rights movement,” Hira said.
“There’s no threat to the voting rights law,” Mitch McConnell told reporters last week. The Republican narrative is that H.R.1 is unnecessary. That is hardly credible given Republican efforts to roll back voter protections in places like Georgia, Texas, and Arizona. “There is for them a currency in creating despair and cynicism and we need to keep spreading the word about the bill,” Hira said.
In Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, latest polling shows more people support H.R.1 than the infrastructure bill. “If he hears from them why this matters—that actually changes minds,” she said.
In Arizona, organizers have been campaigning against a slew of anti-voter rights bills. The Republicans have just one more member than Democrats in both chambers of the legislature. The session is about to end but only 3 of 50 ant-voter bills have passed.
“No mistake. There is a serious and an ongoing struggle but democracy is winning,” Gulotta said. In his mind, it’s not a partisan fight between Republicans and Democrats but rather a struggle over values.
Gulotta said Arizona business owners have told Republicans to oppose bills that are based on lies and conspiracy theories. And although the Republicans generally do vote as a bloc, they can almost always find somebody to see reason and cross the aisle. Whether that will happen with the federal bill is unclear. Gulotta said that there is a huge national fight financed by a lot of dark money. He said Heritage Action is paying for the anti-voter campaigns but who gave them the money is unknown.
“All of the things that helped achieve the historic turnout in 2020 are being attacked. They are being outlawed in a variety of different states,” he said. In Georgia Republicans are taking over boards of election. The vote recount that is happening in Arizona isn’t going to reverse the results but Gulotta worries what’s going to happen the next time the “wrong” candidate wins an election. Election official are already getting ready for the 2022 elections. Reuters filed a report last week about election officials being threatened in Georgia.“It’s scary. You should read it. It’s bad,” Gulotta said.
“Texas is still in the midst of a huge fight over a complex election law bill,” said Mimi Marziani, President, Texas Civil Rights Project.
She said the Texas bill would make voting more difficult for everybody but particularly for vulnerable populations. ”The ones that are really targeted are people of color, people with disability, and people for whom English is a second language,” she said.
Thousands of people have been talking in Texas. Some people drove 8 hours from El Paso to Austin to testify in the capitol. People have held rallies and lawmakers have received thousands of calls opposing the bill. It has had an effect.
“Because of all this pressure and opposition there was a very dramatic moment a couple weeks ago at the 11thhour of our legislative session driven by our Mexican American legislative caucus and our Black legislative caucus. Lawmakers walked out, deprived a quorum, and therefore killed the bill because it was right at the end of the legislative session. As someone who has done this for a long time, it was one of the most remarkable things I have seen in my career,” Marziani said.
A last minute addition to the bill would make it easier for politicians alleging fraud to have an election overturned with very limited proof. As the dust settled after the walkout, Brian Hughes, the bill’s primary sponsor told the Houston Chronicle that he didn’t know how that provision got into the bill.
“It should really concern us if lawmakers don’t know how language is getting plopped into a bill,” Marziani said. She said there has been a lot of backpedaling by Republicans. Governor Greg Abbott said he would call the legislature back into session to vote on the bill. “I expect many legal challenges if it is passed,” Marziani said.
When states like Texas pass voter suppression bills and they are challenged in federal court, chances are pretty good a judge Trump has appointed will hear the case. Trump not only appointed three conservatives to the Supreme Court but he also appointed more than one quarter of all federal judges.
“The Republican grip on the judiciary is an existential crisis for the progressive agenda—one that goes far beyond the conservative take-over of the Supreme Court,” wrote Ellie Mystal in a recent Nation article.
If a lower court judge makes a mistake, it stands until a higher court overrules it and that takes time. But lower courts can “act with lightning speed to stop an entire federal law in its tracks” by issuing a temporary restraining order.
“Many of the immediate goals of the Biden administration won’t survive their first contact with the reality of these revamped courts,” Mystal wrote.
Conservative ideologues masquerading as jurists are poisoning the judiciary and they are appointed for life. On the legislative side, the Republican Party is trying to destroy American democracy by killing the “one man one vote” principle without which it cannot survive. The For The People Act could be an antidote but only if it passes.
This article is brought to you by the support of the Leadership Conference on Education and Ethnic Media Studies.