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Maybe the Democrats Don’t Care That Much About Voting Rights, After All

The party has sold itself as the only thing standing in the way of the existential death of democracy. But it’s not governing as if it believes its own warnings.

Senator Chuck Schumer extends his hand, gesticulating at a press conference.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Speaking to reporters about the For the People Act, the Democrats’ signature voting rights bill, in March, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made it clear that the measure must pass. “We will see if our Republican friends join us,” the New York Democrat said. “If they don’t join us, our caucus will come together and decide the appropriate action to take. Everything is on the table. Failure is not an option.”

On Tuesday, the For the People Act died, not with a bang but a whimper, thanks to the filibuster. Its defeat was ironic in numerous ways. Democratic senators represent 43 million more people than the 50 Republican senators who opposed the bill, but, as Ari Berman wrote in Mother Jones, the filibuster permitted “41 Republican senators representing just 21 percent of the country” to “block the bill from moving forward, even though it’s supported by 68 percent of the public, according to recent polling.” The For the People Act was designed to help thwart the authoritarian wave of voter suppression legislation being passed across the country and make American democracy more representative; instead, it was thwarted in part by the deep-seated structural problems it was trying to fix.

Hours before the bill was taken up by the Senate—and long after it became clear that it had zero chance of passing the Senate—the Biden administration released a statement practically begging for its passage. “Democracy is in peril, here, in America. The right to vote—a sacred right in this countryis under assault with an intensity and an aggressiveness we have not seen in a long time,” the statement from the Office of Management and Budget read. “This landmark legislation is needed to protect the right to vote, ensure the integrity of our elections, and repair and strengthen American democracy.”

It was a statement that echoed Biden’s own dire warnings about democracy across the globe during his recent European jaunt. The Biden administration’s own foreign policy, which involves trying to create a bloc of democratic countries in opposition to authoritarian ones like Russia and China, is, as Vox’s Andrew Prokop argued recently, dependent on passing a bill like the For the People Act. How can the Biden administration claim to be part of an international anti-authoritarian bulwark when American democracy itself is eroding?

Yet despite all this, the administration has spent the bulk of its brief tenure largely sitting on its hands with regard to voting rights. Biden has prioritized other projects, some understandably: Passing a Covid-19 relief bill and coordinating a vaccine rollout were necessary first steps for the Biden White House, which has since moved on to pushing for an infrastructure package (that faces the same filibuster-bred inertia). But on voting rights, the administration has vacillated between urgent rhetoric and long periods of inaction. If this is as deep an existential crisis for American democracy as the Biden administration occasionally suggests, then they and their fellow Democrats in Congress should act like it. Instead, they’re fiddling while Republicans across the country make plans to bring the crisis to completion.

Back in March, the Biden administration applauded the passage of the For the People Act in the House, noting that the legislation “is urgently needed to protect that right, to safeguard the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen our democracy,” given the attack on the Capitol on January 6 and the assault on voting rights taking place in Republican-controlled legislatures.

The evidence suggests that this was no understatement. Hundreds of bills have been introduced to restrict voting access across the country; 24 have already passed. The effort to enact these kinds of laws can be seen as the sum and summa of how Republicans view democracy, which essentially holds that Democratic Party electoral victories are inherently illegitimate. These bills make it harder to vote; some proposals go as far as to give state legislatures sweeping powers to reverse electoral outcomes based on the kinds of insane accusations that were hurled by Donald Trump and his allies.

Democrats have been more than happy both to campaign on these outrages and to stoke fears of what’s to come among their voters, all the while promising to defend their rights once elected. Campaigning for Democratic control of the Senate in Georgia earlier this year, Barack Obama told voters that Republicans were “rigging the game” and that new voter suppression laws being passed in the state were “the kind of dangerous behavior that we’re going to have to push back on.” But the Democrats’ bite has not measured up to their bark. The dearth of action being taken to confront these threats has not lived up to the rhetoric.

The path ahead is difficult, and the For the People Act is itself an imperfect vessel. The Democrats’ razor-thin margins in Congress make it somewhat miraculous that it passed through the House without consensus splintering in some fashion. Now that the Senate is in control of the bill’s fate, it’s lapsed into a Sisyphean torpor: Because the Democrats’ filibuster fetishists hold sway, 10 Republicans (at a minimum) must agree to vote for it. Given the fact that the Republican Party is currently doing everything it can to ensure that Democrats never win an election again, whipping GOP allies to the cause of voting rights is a fool’s errand.

There has been some eleventh-hour movement, urgent statements from the Biden administration, and on Tuesday, Manchin announced he would vote to take up debate on the For the People Act, even though it stands no chance of passage. The vote is symbolic and doomed, but this is politics. Voting rights will remain an issue—and an animating issue—in the 2022 and, likely, 2024 elections. But by then it may very well be too late.

As long as Democrats and the Biden administration remain reluctant to nuke or even reform the filibuster, it is their own voters who will be made to feel foolish. After all, they’ve been repeatedly asked to go to the polls in record numbers to provide Democrats with the power to end these existential crises, only to learn later on that their efforts are no match for the casual intransigence of Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin. And so, in 2022, it seems likely that it will once again fall to Democratic voters to turn out in large numbers in order to provide the means by which the Democrats might surmount the obstacles that they spent 2021 throwing in their own way. Unless, of course, the GOP—currently running unopposed in its race against democracy—gets its way, and finally lets Democratic voters off the hook by banning them from the polls.