Supreme Court’s Arizona Voting Rights Ruling Renews Calls To End Filibuster
This week, the US Supreme Court delivered a blow to the efforts to expand voting rights across America by upholding two Arizona statutes. The measures, which the justices ruled 6-3 in favor of retaining, prohibit anyone other than a close family member or caregiver from collecting mail-in ballots, used by a significant number of voters in the state and require officials to completely reject votes from people who cast a ballot accidentally in the wrong precinct.
This ruling from America’s highest court has further boosted calls for voting rights legislation that prevents states from implementing restrictive legislation, as it not only means that the Arizona statutes will remain in place but it also makes it harder for other people to challenge similar laws in other states. With the Supreme Court siding with Republicans in Arizona, this newfound urgency to expand voting rights legislation among Democrats refocuses attention on the debate around removing the filibuster. Multiple prominent Democrats spoke out after the ruling, calling for an end to the filibuster.
This came after just last week, the US Senate had an opportunity to advance S1, known as the For The People Act, protecting voting rights across the country, tackling restrictive voting laws, and upholding democracy throughout the nation. It’s not just any piece of legislation. It was set to be one of the crowning jewels of the Biden administration’s legacy, marking the single most important piece of election protection legislation since the Voting Rights Act.
It would have addressed fundamental issues within America’s democratic process, standardizing voting access at a federal level, removing long-standing barriers to the ballot box, and leveling the political playing field to ensure greater fairness among candidates. By bringing in automatic voter registration and mandating 15 days of early voting, mail-in voting and drop boxes for absentee ballots in every state, it would ensure greater voter access for eligible voters throughout America.
However, the Republican Party, led by the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), used the filibuster to block the chamber from even debating the legislation, let alone voting on it. Through a procedural measure, despite being the minority party in the Senate, 50 Republicans stalled a key element of the Democratic Party and President Biden’s agenda. The GOP returned to its old ways, acting as the Grand Obstructionist Party.
Republicans didn’t engage in good faith negotiation, or seek to work to find a meaningful path forward that would combat the concerns of many Americans. Instead, they sought to protect their political power in state legislatures throughout the US, opposing any attempt at the federal level to limit the power of right-wing state officials, who are working overtime to implement restrictive voter laws.
The situation in the Senate has restarted, with a vengeance, a debate within the Democratic Party over the importance of reforming the filibuster rule, bringing the number of votes required to pass legislation down from 60 votes to a majority of 51. While there have been some areas where there is potential for bipartisan agreement, such as the recently announced infrastructure proposal, the majority of issues raised by Congress so far appear to be dividing down party lines.
In other words, hoping to get enough Republicans on board to further Biden’s agenda is looking like an increasingly lost cause to many Democrats. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) might have said that there must be at least 10 Republicans willing to put country above party and do the right thing in the Senate but, so far, we are yet to see that occurring. Despite this, there are some Democrats who still oppose the elimination of the filibuster, namely Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, instead looking more towards smaller reforms to the process, such as lowering the filibuster threshold or requiring Senators to filibuster by talking at length rather than a simple obstructionist vote.
The filibuster isn’t some fundamental part of US democracy, nor is it enshrined within America’s founding documents. It was accidentally created in the 1800s when a rule was removed, with it taking many years before anyone realized what they’d done. It’s an accident that is a relic of the Jim Crow era, and a measure with a racist history of blocking progressive legislation, civil rights bills and voting rights legislation. Opponents of the filibuster argue that allowing it to remain in place continues to give power to individuals who want to halt fundamental reforms and preserve the status quo, regardless of who is discriminated against or harmed by its continued existence. Even its usage in blocking S1 has been called discriminatory, with the filibuster preventing federal legislation that would unwind laws that disproportionately target Black voters, restricting their access to the ballot box.
More than its problematic history, the filibuster has often been condemned an undemocratic measure that subverts the will of the people. The US Senate is made up of 50 Democratic Senators who were elected with a combined total of 83 million votes and 50 Republicans who only received 63 million votes. Yet, while the filibuster exists, the GOP can block legislation by preventing the chamber from advancing bills.
Despite Democrats having the backing of a greater number of Americans and control of the Senate, their agenda can be stopped in its tracks by a group of Senators who represent less than 25% of the US population. In a country that prides itself on claiming to be a beacon of democracy that shines around the world, how can one of its legislative chambers continue to operate in this manner?
Given the concern about eliminating the filibuster from some politicians, due to the ease it would give the majority party to act, a number of alternative reforms have been presented that could be taken to move to a more cohesive situation. The one that seems to have the strongest potential of moving forward is, as previously mentioned, lowering the threshold from 60 votes to 55, making it less likely that the filibuster will easily block legislation but also avoiding concerns about the Senate flipping regularly between the two parties. There’s also the suggestion of ending the filibuster for specific legislation, like voting rights. While this would not be the complete change many are calling for, it would be a step in the right direction for individuals who want to scrap the filibuster, weakening the measure.
However, there are other mechanisms that have been gaining traction, such as Democrats using the budget reconciliation tool to prevent Republicans from halting the passage of bills with the filibuster. This approach lets lawmakers use the reconciliation process that allows fiscal legislation to avoid the limitations of the filibuster, essentially letting Democrats pass any bill they want, within the parameters of this system. It’s already been used for the American Rescue Plan to provide COVID-19 relief and is also likely to be used for the progressive components of Biden’s infrastructure plan. However, while this does let some bills through, it doesn’t work on non-budgetary items. This dodges the problem opponents of the filibuster highlight, rather than fixing them.
While a clear argument for removing or reforming the filibuster is put forward by Democrats and political groups, there are individuals who argue that ending the rule due to the challenges it poses would be a short-sighted decision that left-wing individuals would ultimately regret. The argument against abolishing the filibuster focuses on one main point: Control of the Senate can easily swing from the Democrats to the Republicans, thus handing the GOP the ability to act in the future with a simple majority vote. However, there are two problems with this argument.
Firstly, as previously mentioned, both chambers of Congress should reflect the will of the people. Whichever party holds the majority has, under America’s electoral system, been given the backing of the American people and, therefore, should have greater authority, rather than being powerless when confronted by an obstructionist minority party. Secondly, while a GOP win in the midterms could allow Republicans to block the Biden agenda with a simple majority, the filibuster is ensuring they can halt it in its tracks anyway under an outdated rule. With the Republican Party’s actions on S1, Democrats can see that the only way to swiftly address the key problems they want to tackle during Biden’s first term is to end the filibuster.
Significant voting rights legislation is needed so America can bring democracy back from the brink after the damage caused to it by the former president and his enablers in the Republican Party. There has been an unprecedented assault on America’s democracy, with right-wing individuals openly seeking to undermine the will of the people and rig the electoral process for their own personal and political gain. But reforming the filibuster is about more than this one, important piece of legislation.
While the filibuster remains in place, legislation that is fundamentally required to improve the lives of individuals throughout America will face an uphill battle, if not be impossible to get through the Senate. From implementing sensible gun control legislation to tackling climate change, Democrats will find the Republican Party standing in their way, using the filibuster to slam the door on their agenda. The filibuster was mistakenly created and is an outdated piece of legislation. Pressure is rising for the Democratic Party to make drastic changes to the filibuster once and for all.