No decision facing Democrats over the next two years will shape the long-term political competition between the parties more than whether they end the Senate filibuster to pass their agenda to reform elections and expand access to the vote.
The party’s immediate political fate in the 2022 and 2024 elections is likely to turn mostly on whether Joe Biden can successfully control the coronavirus outbreak—restarting the economy and returning a sense of normalcy to daily life. But the contours of American politics just over that horizon, through 2030 and beyond, will be determined even more by whether Democrats can establish new national standards for the conduct of elections through a revised Voting Rights Act and sweeping legislation known as H.R. 1, which would set nationwide voting rules, limit “dark money” campaign spending, and ban gerrymandering of congressional districts. With both bills virtually guaranteed to pass the House, as they did in the last Congress, their fate will likely turn on whether Senate Democrats are willing to end the filibuster to approve them over Republican opposition on a simple-majority vote.
That decision carries enormous consequences for the future balance of power between the parties: The number of younger and diverse voters participating in future elections will likely be much greater if these laws pass than if they don’t, especially with state-level Republicans already pushing a new round of laws making it tougher to vote based on Donald Trump’s discredited claims of election fraud in 2020. Given those stakes, the Democrats’ voting-rights agenda is quickly becoming a focal point of the pressure from left-leaning activists to end the filibuster. “Our grass roots will not accept the notion that we had good intentions, but we just failed” to pass these laws, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the Senate companion to H.R. 1, told me.