Voting rights bill blocked: How it could have been different

The “For the People Act” failed to advance in the Senate June 22 after a 50-50 vote, leaving the bill’s future in serious doubt. The For the People Act contains several important measures protecting against, racist, anti-worker and anti-democratic schemes pushed by the right wing to disenfranchise voters.

Perhaps the most contentious of these proposals is the elimination of partisan gerrymandering. As things currently stand, state legislatures draw congressional districts to benefit the ruling party of those states. This often leads to districts deliberately drawn to reduce the political influence of Black, Latino and other oppressed communities while ensuring a right wing majority in legislative bodies. Under the For the People Act, this practice would be abolished in favor of neutral commissions.

In addition to ending partisan gerrymandering, the For the People Act would make it easier for working-class people to vote by extending the early voting period, making election day a federal holiday, and allowing for same-day voter registration. 

Voter roll purges would also be eliminated. A voter roll purge is a process where state and local officials remove the names of individuals from the list of registered voters in the state. In theory, voter-roll purges are meant to keep track of people who have moved, died, or become ineligible to vote since the last election.

In practice, voter-roll purges depress the turnout of working-class voters in states without same-day voter registration. Stories abound of people who show up to vote and realize that they have been purged from the voter rolls for simply sharing a name with someone who died in the same state. The Brennan Center for Justice, a legal think tank, noted that 17 million voters were purged between 2016 and 2018. Allowing same-day voter registration eliminates the harmful effects of a mistake in voter purges. 

Initially, another major component of the For the People Act was the elimination of voter-ID requirements. Counties with strict voter-ID laws showed lower turn out by Black and Latino voters in comparison to white voters. Voter ID laws are a solution to an imaginary problem — given that from 2000 to 2014 there have been only 31 cases of voter fraud out of over a billion ballots cast. 

Joe Manchin, Democratic senator from West Virginia, took issue with the elimination of these racist voter-ID requirements. He put forward an alternative proposal to introduce voter-ID requirements into federal law. The Democratic Party leadership in the Senate as well as prominent figures outside Congress, including President Obama and Stacey Abrams, have supported Manchin’s proposal and caved to the extreme right. 

Why didn’t the bill pass?

If the Democratic Party leaders were willing to truly fight to pass progressive voting rights legislation, they could get it done.

First, they would need to end the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote majority to pass most pieces of legislation. The filibuster is not a law. It is a self-imposed rule to ostensibly encourage bipartisanship. In reality, it preserves the status quo by limiting the ability of the Senate to pass bills. If the filibuster was eliminated, Vice President Kamala Harris would be able to break the 50-50 tie in the Senate and pass the For the People Act. 

Second, the Democrats would have to discipline Manchin along with Kyrsten Sinema and possibly other right wingers in their ranks. Eliminating the filibuster would likely lead to a revolt by Manchin and Sinema, both of whom have strongly defended the filibuster. Rather than giving concessions on key issues like voter-ID requirements, the Democratic Party establishment could send a strong message to Manchin and Sinema to get in line or else face consequences. These could include primary challenges, a promise of zero campaign money from the Democratic National Committee, “no” votes on any of their sponsored legislation, or even expulsion from committee assignments. 

Eliminating the filibuster rule would allow Democrats to pass the sweeping reforms laid out in Biden’s American Families Plan, American Jobs Plan, PRO Act and more. With their unreciprocated show of good faith to the Republican Party, Democrats continue to betray promises made to the working class. 

Tectonic shifts in U.S. public opinion brought about by mass movements are posing a greater and greater threat to the tiny elite that rules this country. Millions and millions of people have adopted a progressive and pro-socialist outlook in light of these movements. These movements include, for example, the 2020 revolt against racism and the movement that developed around the Bernie Sanders campaign. An increasingly large section of the ruling class — including most Democratic Party politicians — have come to the conclusion that significant concessions like the For the People Act need to be implemented in response to the growing threat to their rule. 

But despite being in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the Democrats’ timidity is preventing this from actually coming to pass. Mass mobilization and other forms of grassroots struggle is badly needed to tip the balance and exert the pressure needed to defeat the attacks on the right to vote and win a whole host of other measures beneficial to tens of millions of working people. 

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