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Republicans blocked a key voting rights bill. Are Democrats out of options?

·6-min read

Hello, and happy Thursday,

Senate Republicans on Wednesday again blocked Democrats from advancing sweeping federal voting rights legislation, escalating one of the most important fights for the future of US democracy.

The bill failed to advance on a 49-51 party-line vote (Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, changed his vote at the last minute in a procedural maneuver that will allow him to bring it up again). It would have required states to automatically register voters when they interact with motor vehicle agencies, offer two weeks of early voting, allow anyone to request a mail-in ballot, and outlaw the severe manipulation of electoral districts, a practice called gerrymandering.

No one was particularly surprised by the Republican effort to block the measure – they already blocked an earlier version of the bill two times this year. But the higher-stakes fight is what Democrats do next with the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation. Republicans are using the provision to prevent a vote on the bill.

“What we saw from Republicans today is not how the Senate is supposed to work,” Schumer said after the vote.

Democrats have been calling to get rid of the filibuster, arguing that the rule, once envisioned as a tool to bring compromise, had turned into a GOP weapon of obstruction. Now, all eyes will be on two Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two of the staunchest supporters of keeping the filibuster. If Democrats were to get rid of the rule, they could advance the voting rights bill with a majority vote.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about why I was optimistic that this vote could be a crucial turning point for Manchin. After Republicans blocked a more expansive voting rights bill earlier this year, Manchin reportedly made efforts to get GOP support for the measure. Republican recalcitrance in the face of those good-faith efforts could push Manchin to open up to changing the filibuster rules. I still think that Manchin would not have put so much effort into the revised measure if he wasn’t willing to do something to get it passed.

Civil rights groups and other activists are also going to be closely watching how Joe Biden responds in the aftermath of another voting rights failure. While the president strongly supports voting rights legislation, the White House has not explicitly endorsed getting rid of the filibuster.

Senate Democrats would like to start debate on the Freedom to Vote Act. Senate Democrats have worked hard to ensure this bill includes traditionally bipartisan provisions. But Senate Republicans are likely to block even debate on the bill, as they have before on previous voting rights bills. “It’s unconscionable,” the president said in a statement on Wednesday.

Aside from a brief comment earlier this year, the White House also has not publicly pressured Manchin and Sinema around the voting rights bills. That has infuriated some activists, who feel that the White House is not putting enough political muscle behind pushing voting rights legislation.

“You said the night you won that Black America had your back and that you were going to have Black America’s back,” the Rev Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader, said at a voting rights rally in August. “Well, Mr President, they’re stabbing us in the back.”

What’s next?

The next few weeks are going to be some of the most critical for Democrats – and no one quite knows what will happen. After the vote, Schumer and other Democrats immediately suggested they weren’t giving up on voting rights legislation, hinting they would do away with the filibuster if necessary. Schumer also promised he would bring the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a separate bill that would restore a critical provision of the Voting Rights Act, up for a vote next week. Another filibuster of that would only increase pressure on Manchin and Sinema.

It’s also worth watching whether the White House escalates public pressure on Manchin and Sinema after the repeated filibusters – something it has not been willing to do.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, one of the main sponsors of the bill, said in a statement on Wednesday that Democrats would not give up on the bill, hinting that changes to the filibuster were needed.

“We will continue to fight. We must restore the Senate so we can work together in the way the Founders intended to take on the challenges facing our democracy,” the Minnesota Democrat said in a statement.

There would be immediate, tangible consequences if Democrats were able to pass the bill. In Texas, Republicans are on the verge of implementing a new congressional map filled with district lines that are distorted to entrench the party’s control of the state for the next decade and blunt the growing power of minority voters. The bill contains a provision that would allow courts to block maps if a computer simulation shows they produced an unacceptable level of bias in two of four recent elections. The new Texas map would fail the bias test, said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.

On Tuesday, I spoke with Rafael Anchia, a Democrat in the Texas House who sat on the panel tasked with redrawing district lines. The previous evening, the Texas legislature gave final approval to the maps, and Anchia had been working until 3am. He described how frustrating it was to watch his Republican colleagues rush through the maps, giving the public little chance to provide feedback on the plans.

“It’s pretty demoralizing, to be honest with you,” he told me. “The Senate has to act. They have to act because democracy requires it,” he added.

Reader questions

Thank you to everyone who wrote in last week with questions. You can continue to write to me each week at sam.levine@theguardian.com or DM me on Twitter at @srl and I’ll try and answer as many as I can.

John writes: Is it now time for the US to adopt the obvious system that appoints the presidential candidate who has the most popular votes?

There have been growing calls to get rid of the electoral college in recent years, especially after two presidents, George W Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016, won the presidency but lost the electoral vote. To me, it’s part of a broader recognition of how certain rules and practices – the filibuster, partisan gerrymandering – undermine America’s democratic ideals.

I’m curious to see how and if the push grows ahead of the 2024 election. There is an interesting effort, bubbling in some states, to create a compact where states would agree to award their electors based on the winner of the popular vote.

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