An independent senator from a New England state who caucuses with Democrats delivered an impassioned speech that quickly went viral on Tuesday, warning that a spate of bills passed in Republican-controlled states restricting voting rights would lead to a hollowing out of American democracy unless the Senate acts swiftly to pass its own legislation.
You’re probably thinking of the wrong senator. The speech was delivered by Senator Angus King of Maine, who flies lower under the radar than his irascible independent colleague from Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders. King helped develop the recent voting rights legislation blocked by Senate Republicans on Wednesday and has undergone a notable public evolution on the role of the filibuster.
“What if the current wave of voter suppression legislation succeeds and keeps tens of thousands of people from voting, or what if in 2024 a partisan legislature in a swing state votes to override the election results and send its own set of electors to Congress?” King asked in his speech on Tuesday. “Then it won’t just be Republicans who distrust elections, and we will be left with a downward spiral toward a hollow shell of democracy, where only raw power prevails and its peaceful transfer becomes a distant memory.”
Between January 1 and the end of September, at least 19 states had enacted 33 bills that made it more difficult to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Republicans argue that these bills are necessary to counter voter fraud and ensure election security. However, critics note that the bills tend to affect areas with a higher concentration of minority voters. Some of these measures have also made voting by mail, which tends to be used more by Democratic voters than Republicans, more onerous. Still other bills have taken power away from state election officials and granted more to state legislatures or other partisan entities, raising the prospect that legislatures might overturn election results.
This widespread effort to curtail voting rights and create opportunities for partisan subversion of election results also comes as former President Donald Trump continues to repeat false claims that the 2020 election was stolen; he has continually argued, too, that efforts to overturn the election during the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol were justifiable protests. In addition, there has been a recent exodus of state and local election officials, which could be attributed to the fact that they have been subjected to regular harassment for not supporting conspiracies about the 2020 presidential election.
Senate Republicans on Wednesday filibustered the Freedom to Vote Act, stymying Democratic efforts to counter the bills that are either being considered or have already been enacted by multiple Republican-controlled state legislatures, once again raising questions about the power of the minority in the Senate.
Republicans had blocked a far more sweeping measure in June, the For the People Act, which led a group of Senate Democrats to craft narrower legislation over the summer that eliminated some of the more controversial provisions. Negotiations were led in part by Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia who shopped the bill to his Republican colleagues in the hope of gaining the necessary support to reach the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster. (Manchin had largely opposed the For the People Act because it lacked bipartisan support.)
The bill was not negotiated with Republicans, who have repeatedly expressed opposition to what they argue would amount to a federal takeover of the state elections system, so it is perhaps unsurprising that not one GOP senator voted to advance the Freedom to Vote Act on Wednesday.
The bill made some concessions to moderate Democrats, such as allowing states more flexibility to implement new rules and requiring nonpartisan rules for state redistricting, but no longer calling for states to use independent commissions.
But it also retained several of key provisions from the For the People Act, including implementing automatic voter registration, expanding early voting and access to voting by mail, broadening identification options for states that require ID to vote, restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions who have completed their sentences, and making Election Day a federal holiday.
In a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer argued that by voting against advancing the bill, Republicans were offering an “implicit endorsement of the horrid new voter suppression and election subversion laws passed in conservative states across the country.”
Schumer also said that he would bring another bill pertaining to voting rights to the floor as soon as next week, although its fate is almost certain to be the same as the Freedom to Vote Act’s. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late congressman and civil rights icon, would restore a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. But it only has one Republican sponsor—Senator Lisa Murkowski—and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he believes the bill is “unnecessary.” (Just 15 years ago, in 2006, McConnell was one of 98 senators who voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. No senators voted against it.)
As long as the 60-vote threshold remains intact, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is unlikely to move forward in the Senate. At least two Democratic senators, Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, have expressed opposition to eliminating the filibuster. Manchin has also said he would be unwilling to create a special carve-out for voting rights bills.
The inability to enact voting rights legislation has become increasingly infuriating for activists and many congressional Democrats. “Senate Democrats can have the filibuster, or they can defend our democracy. At this point, there is no third option,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesperson for the Fix Our Senate coalition, in a call with reporters on Tuesday.
Adam Jentleson, the founder of the Battle Born Collective and a former senior Senate Democratic aide, argued in the same call with reporters that, if they ascended to power, Republicans would have no compunction about ending the filibuster if it suited their purposes.
“There’s nothing that’s going to stop them from doing that if that’s what they want to do,” Jentleson said, pointing to Republicans ending the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in 2017. (McConnell has argued that he was following Democratic precedent, as Democrats eliminated the filibuster for all other judicial nominees in 2013—because Republicans were blocking those seats from being filled.)
Activists believe that it is time for President Joe Biden to get some skin in the game and publicly call on the Senate to reform the filibuster, arguing that Biden may be the only person with enough sway to persuade moderates like Manchin that doing so is a necessary step to protect democracy. “Joe Biden [coming] out in support of filibuster reform would be a Nixon going to China moment,” Jentleson said.
Sean Eldridge, the president of Stand Up America, said that despite Biden’s words that voting rights were a key issue for him, the president was not doing enough to advocate for the bill’s passage. “Right now I do not believe President Biden is doing everything he can.… We need a lot more from the White House to get this across the finish line,” Eldridge said.
This sentiment was echoed by Representative Mondaire Jones, who said in a statement on Wednesday that it was time for Biden to “finally engage in this fight in a meaningful way” by calling for filibuster reform. “Our time to save our democracy is running out. If President Biden cares about this as much as he professes to, he needs to act now, before it’s too late,” Jones said.
But Biden served in the Senate for nearly 40 years before becoming vice president, and respects the institution. While he has hinted at supporting some reforms, it may be difficult for him publicly to endorse changes that would transform the landscape of the Senate. In a statement on Wednesday ahead of the vote, Biden said that “democracy—the very soul of America—is at stake.” He did not offer any specific suggestions for what Democrats should do if the vote failed.
Vice President Kamala Harris offered similar platitudes after the vote, telling reporters on Wednesday that “we’re not going to give up.” Like the president, she did not say what continuing to fight for voting rights would entail.
Schumer has also not explicitly called for filibuster reform, although he has obliquely referred to the need to “restore” the Senate. “We need to work to restore the Senate as the world’s greatest deliberative body, so we can better serve the needs of our nation. Republicans blocking one bill after another even from consideration is not that,” Schumer said in his speech on Wednesday. In perhaps an implicit message to Manchin, who has said voting rights legislation needs to be bipartisan, Schumer noted that the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments passed after the Civil War without any minority support.
“The members of this chamber can take inspiration from great patriots of the past who put country over party. Or they can cross their arms and watch as our 240-year-old experiment in democracy falls prey to the specters of authoritarian control,” Schumer said.
King, who has raised concerns about eliminating the filibuster, said in a call with reporters on Tuesday that he expected Senate Democrats to open discussions about the filibuster, whether to reform it or abolish it altogether. He highlighted the argument of the need to preserve the filibuster to maintain the power of the minority, saying that “today’s obstruction is tomorrow’s priceless shield.” However, he said that voting rights were too critical not to act upon.
“I’ve been very, very reluctant on that issue. On the other hand, it strikes me that this is a special case because it goes to the fundamental issue of how our democratic system works,” King told reporters. If democracy was not safeguarded, he said, “everything else falls by the wayside.”
“We’ll end up in a place where nothing wins but power,” King said.