Late Sunday night, Democratic lawmakers in Texas took a dramatic stand for voting rights.
With their Republican colleagues poised to approve especially noxious constraints on ballot access, they walked out of the state’s House of Representatives — denying the chamber the quorum required to pass legislation.
It was a stunning setback for a GOP that has approved a steady stream of voting restrictions in Georgia, Florida, and Iowa in recent months, building off former President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud and aimed at suppressing Democratic votes.
But the reprieve in Texas looks temporary.
Governor Greg Abbott says he will call a special legislative session to take up the measure again, with some modifications. And with the GOP in control of both houses of the legislature, it is expected to pass eventually. Democrats in the state understand that only too well. And in recent days, they have called for help from the only people who can provide it: Democrats in Washington.
“I’m asking Joe Biden, you need to help Texas,” said State Representative Michelle Beckley, a member of the House Elections Committee. “We have done everything we can. The Democratic senators, you need to pass the voter bills.”
The bills she is referring to are the For the People Act, which would eliminate partisan gerrymandering and protect the early and absentee voting targeted by the GOP in states like Texas, and a narrower measure, named after the late civil rights icon John Lewis, that would restore important Voting Rights Act provisions gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Beckley and her colleagues in Texas are right: Democrats need to move on these measures. And they need to move quickly. Election lawyers say if Congress doesn’t act by Labor Day, it will be too late to affect the 2022 mid-term elections.
To push the legislation through, Senate Democrats would have to suspend the filibuster, which effectively requires a 60-vote majority to pass bills of any significance. And that’s been a major sticking point for some Democratic senators, most notably Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Both insist that the filibuster is an important instrument of bipartisanship. But bipartisanship, as even a casual observer of American politics can attest, is dead. The real value of the filibuster, for moderates like Manchin and Sinema, is that it keeps big, progressive bills off the Senate floor, shielding them from votes that might not play well in their home states.
Even by that calculus, though, voting reform is a winner. Polls show the main provisions of the For the People Act are quite popular with voters — even Republicans.
They should be. There is nothing more sacred in a democracy than the right to vote. Nothing that should transcend partisan considerations in quite the same way. And if Democrats cannot rally around that first principle — if they cannot agree to suspend the filibuster in this one, vital case — then they are failing at their most basic duty.
Manchin, for one, has given little reason to think he’ll rise to the occasion. He’s called the For the People Act “too darn broad” and argued that a party-line vote to approve it would be divisive.
But he has voiced support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore and modernize a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to win pre-clearance from federal officials before enacting changes to voting laws. He’s even called for the legislation to go a step further and require pre-clearance for all 50 states.
While not as sweeping as the For the People Act, the measure could serve as a brake on some of the worst assaults on voting rights — and weaken some of the restrictions already approved by GOP lawmakers at the state level.
Even here, Manchin has said he wouldn’t support suspending the filibuster, holding out hope for GOP support of the John Lewis act instead.
But the time for hope is running out. In the coming weeks, Manchin and the rest of the Senate Democrats need to step up and protect American democracy, because its defenders in Texas and other hostile territories can only do so much.
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