The Pulse

Republicans torpedo debate on voting rights in dangerous moment for democracy

By: - October 22, 2021 7:10 am
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When Senate Republicans voted unanimously to block debate on the Freedom to Vote Act on Wednesday, they fulfilled Mitch McConnell’s “hope and anticipation” that not a single GOP senator would break ranks — ensuring that a measure protecting voting rights and secure elections, increasing campaign finance transparency and cracking down on partisan gerrymandering would not come to the floor.

So much for West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin’s promise to get 10 GOP colleagues to support the compromise bill, which he led.

It’s a perilous moment for democracy.

Now Democrats must decide if they are going to push to abolish the filibuster to secure voting rights, or whether they will let Republican state legislatures, which are making an unprecedented push to curtail voting rights, run the table in the 2022 and 2024 elections and for the next 10 years as as they draw new voting districts based on the 2020 census.

The stakes are high.

Molly McGrath, a voting rights attorney, advocate, and organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project told the Wisconsin TV show Up Front’s Mike Gousha on Wednesday that in the absence of federal action, state-level voter suppression bills around the country could determine the outcome of elections for years to come. “It’s almost like death by 1,000 cuts,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of restrictions that are going to have a very, very big impact on people who will be able to cast a ballot, a huge impact on traditionally disenfranchised communities.”

The Brennan Center for Justice recently reported that, in an unprecedented year so far for voting legislation, 19 states have enacted 33 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote.

All of those state laws make it absolutely essential for Congress to act to protect voting rights, McGrath said. “Doing nothing doesn’t keep us in neutral,” she explained. “Doing nothing on the federal level actually takes us backward.”

In Wisconsin and other states where a Democratic governor has served as a check on Republican legislators’ efforts to limit voting, McGrath described the veto as “the last levy before the flood.”

“It is going to be so essential to have a pro-voting, pro-democracy, pro-voter governor in these key states to protect from these voter-suppressive laws,” she said. “It also really demonstrates how organizing now for 2022 is actually also organizing for 2024. Because those states where a veto exists … are going to be key states to the White House as well.”

Across the nation, legislative majorities are moving to preserve gerrymandered partisan advantages. The Freedom to Vote Act would impose a statutory ban on partisan gerrymandering which, according to a Brennan Center analysis, would fill the gap left by the U.S. Supreme Court when it decided in 2019 that federal courts have no power to decide partisan gerrymandering claims.

In Washington, pressure is mounting on President Joe Biden and Senate Republicans to end the filibuster, at least in a targeted way for voting rights legislation. Biden called Wednesday’s Republican filibuster on voting rights “unconscionable.” After the Republicans shut down debate on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer described their action as “an implicit endorsement of the horrid new voter suppression and election subversion laws pushed in conservative states across the country.”

“Republicans in this body are permitting states to criminalize giving food and water to voters at the polls,” Schumer said, referring to a Georgia law targeting get-out-the-vote efforts. “Republicans are saying it’s OK to limit polling places and voting hours and shut the door to more expansive vote by mail.”

Wisconsin is one of many states where Republicans have been busy sowing doubt about election integrity, and using the doubt they’ve sown to conduct spurious “investigations” of the 2020 presidential election, harass local elections clerks, and defend laws that make it harder for people of color and other likely Democratic voters to cast ballots.

Republicans in our state and others are mobilizing around the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, and staking their political future on the more pernicious lie that U.S. elections are broken and cheating is rampant to justify denying voters access to the polls. It’s a dangerous game.

Atiba Ellis, a professor of law at Marquette University Law School whose research focuses on voting rights law, put the current round of election investigations and efforts to suppress the vote in a larger historical context in Wednesday’s discussion with Gousha.

After Trump lost in 2020, “When the voter fraud talk didn’t work and when the voter fraud litigation didn’t work, given the standards the court held for evidence,” Ellis said, “then we saw a voter fraud insurrection on Jan. 6, and that echoes so much the worst of American history.”

Now Republicans are counting on the filibuster, a relic of Jim Crow, to help them squelch voting rights protections. True to form, they are also spreading lies about the federal voting rights legislation itself.

The Republican National Committee has taken to calling the Freedom to Vote Act “Freedom to Cheat,” continuing to beat the drum about the need to protect voters from non-existent voter fraud.

In a statement released shortly after Wisconsin’s two senators split on voting rights, RNC Spokeswoman Rachel Reisner declared, “Tammy Baldwin continues to undermine Wisconsin voters as she stands with her fellow Democrats in support of the ‘Freedom to Cheat’ Act. Thankfully, Ron Johnson knows Wisconsinites are better off being governed by Wisconsin laws which make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

Among the measures proposed by Wisconsin Republicans that supposedly make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat” is one that took away the ability for people who were indefinitely confined to receive absentee ballots automatically. Instead, they would need to fill out an absentee ballot request for every election and show an ID. “They’re indefinitely confined to their home already, because of age or sickness,” McGrath pointed out, “and so to require them to do this is not only illogical but it’s also just kind of cruel, on a human level.”

Democrats have the power to put a stop to Republicans’ cruel and anti-democratic behavior. But they must act fast to modernize the filibuster rules, at least to allow debate on the Freedom to Vote Act as well as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore key protections in the Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone civil rights law that has long enjoyed bipartisan support.

If they don’t. Ellis warned, the consequences could be dire. “If we don’t do this, I think that this trend is towards state dominance and this trend towards Republican states just sort of falling in line, making the voting rules more and more strict will continue unabated,” he said.

And there is another, related threat that the attack on voting rights will continue to lead to actual, physical attacks — threats, violence, and hooliganism, which pro-Trump Republicans have begun openly courting, especially over the last year.

“Local level administrators are feeling under threat that a lot of the voter fraud talk is leading to violence in some places and certainly more and more disruption, even if it doesn’t come to violence,” Ellis said. “So it’s not just an audit, it’s not just recounts, this ginning up the noise without any actual signal. It’s normalizing interference with our elections. … It’s hard to foresee us [being] a credible democracy if we give credence to that kind of attitude.”

Ruth Conniff is the editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner which first published this essay.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner, part of the States Newsroom network. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC.