The Democrats’ Dead End on Voting Rights

They claim that democracy is under threat, but they lack the collective will to save it.

A Democratic donkey with the "typing" dots in its thought bubble
marvod / Getty; Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Democrats have cast in dire terms their push to protect and expand voting rights before the next national elections. “Failure is not an option,” Senate Majority Chuck Schumer has repeatedly declared, making the oft-broken vow that leaders in both parties assign to their tippy-top priorities. This afternoon, Schumer brought up his party’s broad election-reform bill for an initial procedural vote, and it failed.

That the legislation, known as the For the People Act, would fall to a GOP filibuster has been clear for months. Democrats, of course, have vowed to press forward and try again. Yet they approached today’s doomed vote without any apparent fallback.

“There better be a Plan B. I just don’t know what it is,” Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii told me last week in the Capitol. When I asked the Senate’s second-most-powerful Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, what the party’s next step would be, he was similarly stumped. “That’s a good question,” Durbin replied. “I don’t know,” conceded both Representative Jerry Nadler of New York, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and, separately, Chris Coons of Delaware, President Joe Biden’s closest Senate ally. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, after first suggesting that Democrats might narrow the bill if it couldn’t pass in its current form, soon acknowledged the obvious. “There’s a top-secret plan in place that I can’t share with you that will eventually get [the bill] passed in totality,” he said with a chuckle.

These headshakes exemplify the party’s quandary as it confronts both the limits and the precariousness of its slim majorities in Washington: Democrats claim that democracy is under threat, but they lack the collective will to save it. Self-interest is also at play. Aggressive attempts by Republicans at the state level to restrict voting in advance of the 2022 midterm elections have led many Democrats to believe that their only chance to retain power is to pass voting-rights legislation in the next few months. Their resulting desperation, in turn, has invited GOP attacks that the election bill’s aim is partisan in nature.

The For the People Act would represent the biggest overhaul of federal election laws in more than half a century, setting national standards for early and mail voting, banning partisan gerrymandering, and creating a new public-financing system for campaigns. Knowing that Republicans would not provide the 10 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, the Democrats’ initial strategy has centered on a single member of their own party, the fulcrum around which all of Washington seems to revolve, Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Their goal is to persuade Manchin not only to vote for the bill but to back it so strongly that he would support an exemption to filibuster to get it passed. Until recently, Manchin had rebuffed them on both fronts: He declared his opposition to the original and most expansive version of the election bill, and he’s vowed again and again that he will “not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.”

Manchin has insisted that voting-rights legislation garner bipartisan support, nudging Democrats to prioritize the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a separate bill updating the 1965 Voting Rights Act that currently has the backing of exactly one Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. That bill is on a separate track and won’t be ready until the fall; Democrats have said they must first hold hearings to build an extensive evidentiary record to present in an inevitable challenge before the Supreme Court, which, in 2013, invalidated a key portion of the original Voting Rights Act. The final bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Democrats last week, “must be passed in a way that is constitutionally ironclad.” Pelosi has also said that though the Voting Rights Act is a necessary part of the Democrats’ agenda, it is not a substitute for the far broader For the People Act.

Some Democrats want the John Lewis bill expedited, both because of its substantive importance in restoring federal oversight of elections in certain states and because the legislation now named for the late civil-rights icon has a more recent history of bipartisan backing. The last reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act cleared the Senate unanimously in 2006, winning the support of 10 Republicans who remain in the Senate today. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who voted for the 2006 bill—has already come out against a rewrite in response to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, and voting-rights advocates doubt it could overcome a filibuster this time. “There aren’t 10 Republican senators who are going to support any voting-rights legislation,” Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate for political reform, told me.

I could find no Republican senators willing to join Murkowski in committing their support to a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who crosses the aisle as frequently as any GOP senator, told me she wasn’t prepared to announce her position. Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who was one of seven GOP votes to convict former President Donald Trump during his second impeachment trial, was similarly evasive. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama supported the 2006 bill and isn’t running for reelection, but he told me he was “skeptical” of the Democrats’ plans for updating the 1965 law, saying they were trying to “overrule” the Supreme Court in the process.

Another major challenge for Democrats is that as far-reaching as their election bills are, they are, to some extent, already outdated and ignore recent state laws that election-law experts say pose the most urgent threat to democracy. The For the People Act, also referred to as H.R. 1 or S. 1, was written before the 2020 election, and it does not address changes recently enacted by Republican-led states that give state legislatures more power to overrule or remove election boards or supervisors responsible for counting and certifying votes. Nor does it revise the Electoral Count Act to make overturning the will of voters more difficult for state legislatures. Democrats told me that discussions were under way about tackling those laws, and a group of Democrats this week introduced a bill to do so.

If there was a breakthrough as today’s vote neared, it came from—who else?—Manchin, who last week outlined the changes to election laws that he would support. His proposal would jettison the creation of independent redistricting commissions (while retaining a general prohibition on partisan gerrymandering) and a public-financing system. He also called for instituting a voter-ID requirement—a mandate that Democrats have loudly opposed as racially motivated voter suppression when Republicans have proposed it on the state level.

Yet with nowhere else to turn, Democrats responded positively to Manchin’s memo. They were pleasantly surprised by his embrace of national voting standards such as two weeks of early voting, automatic registration, and a ban on partisan gerrymandering. “We might squabble about one or two things, but I’m not about to sacrifice all the good in favor of the perfect,” Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia told reporters in the Capitol, summing up a view expressed by several Democrats. Stacey Abrams, the voting-rights advocate likely to mount a second gubernatorial campaign in Georgia next year, said she would “absolutely” support Manchin’s compromise. Even Manchin’s call for a voter-ID requirement (allowing citizens to produce alternative proof, such as a utility bill) was not the poison pill many might have assumed it would be.

Democrats discussed Manchin’s proposal in a private meeting on Thursday, and they emerged believing they were at least one modest step closer to success. “It was one of the more constructive conversations we’ve had in a long time,” Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii told reporters. “I left much more optimistic.” The discussions appear to have yielded something tangible: A week after declaring his opposition to the For the People Act, Manchin stuck with Democrats in today’s procedural vote to bring the legislation up for debate, allowing the party to present—at least for the moment—a united front against the Republican blockade. But Democrats have made no discernible progress on persuading Manchin (and a few other less vocal holdouts) to make a much bigger shift on the filibuster. Without 10 Republican votes or a plan to change Senate rules, neither election bill has a path to becoming law. “This whole thing’s about getting unity on voting rights,” Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia told reporters after the meeting. And what about the filibuster? I asked him. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Inside the Capitol last week, amid the Democratic deliberations on voting rights, Congress was offering up more evidence of how long it can take to reach consensus, and the haste with which it can act once it does. The House finally voted to repeal an authorization for the use of military force first enacted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when some current lawmakers hadn’t yet reached high school. And in the span of three days, Congress created a new federal holiday in honor of Juneteenth that the nation commemorated on Friday, ending with remarkable speed a push for recognition that began decades ago.

Some Democrats and civil-rights leaders told me they had not completely given up on Republicans or Manchin and wanted to spend the summer building pressure on Congress to act on voting rights. One idea under consideration would be to take the federal elections standards in the For the People Act and graft them onto the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act when it’s introduced in the fall. Why they think that would win any GOP votes, however, is unclear. If that is Plan B, then Plans C, D, and E for Democrats are probably outside Congress. They have brought lawsuits against every GOP-led state that has moved to restrict voting, hoping that the courts will strike down the most odious changes. Attorney General Merrick Garland has said he would soon double the staff of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and use what authority it has to scrutinize new state laws for possible violations of federal statutes. But the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to invalidate part of the Voting Rights Act sharply limits how far the Justice Department can go.

Beyond those efforts, Democrats will turn to public outrage, relying on the voters themselves to punish Republicans with a strong turnout against them next year. Yet in the aftermath of today’s ill-fated vote, the plan that seems likeliest to win out is, well, Plan F. The F could stand for “filibuster,” or maybe just “failure,” the same result that Democrats had achieved from earlier pushes—on gun control and climate change, for example—where defeat had supposedly not been an option until, in the end, thanks to the rules of the Senate, it was the only one left.