For the second time this year, Senate Republicans blocked a sweeping voting rights reform bill — leaving Democrats and voting rights activists figuring out their next steps on this issue crucial to their platform.
Every Senate Republican voted against the bill, known as the Freedom to Vote Act, which would make Election Day a federal holiday, ensure that states offer same-day voting registration, guarantee at least 15 days of early voting, including two weekends, ban partisan gerrymandering of Congressional districts, create automatic voter registration programs, bolster election security and mandate donor disclosure.
Every Democrat voted in favor of the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., changed his vote from a "Yes" to a "No" so he could bring up the matter again at a later date.
After the vote, Vice President Kamala Harris, who presided over the Senate Wednesday afternoon, said that Democrats are "not going to give up" on the battle over voting rights.
"Once again Senate Republicans have blocked a procedural vote to hold debate on voting rights legislation," Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, one of the leading voting rights advocates in the caucus, wrote on Twitter. "I remain steadfastly committed to passing voting rights this Congress — no matter what. This fight is far from over."
Prior to the vote, President Joe Biden said that the Senate "needs to act to protect the sacred constitutional right to vote, which is under unrelenting assault by proponents of the Big Lie and Republican Governors, Secretaries of State, Attorneys-General, and state legislatures across the nation."
"It is urgent," Biden wrote. "Democracy – the very soul of America – is at stake."
"The right to vote – to vote freely, to vote fairly, and to have your vote counted – is fundamental," Biden continued. "It should be simple and straightforward."
Unlike the sweeping For the People Act, which passed the House but was blocked by Senate Republicans earlier this year, this bill had the backing of key Moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and the full Democratic caucus.
Manchin had been lobbying Republicans to support the measure, but his efforts were not enough to overcome the Senate’s legislative filibuster — the 60-vote threshold by which most major legislation must meet to pass. Ultimately, no Republicans supported the bill.
The bill contains voter identification measures — a provision opposed by many Democrats, though supported by Manchin — but would allow for a wide range of options in terms of what documents voters can present, in either physical or digital form.
The bill is the latest attempt by Democrats to beat back restrictive voting measures implemented by Republican-led state legislatures across the country. Between January and July of 2021, at least 18 states implemented 30 laws that restrict voting access, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice, including states like Florida, Texas and Georgia.
(In that same period, the Brennan Center notes, 25 states enacted 54 laws that expanded access to the ballot box.)
The filibuster has been a thorn in the side of the Democratically controlled Congress, which holds a razor-thin majority in the House and an even 50-50 split in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking ties. Many Democrats and advocates have called for the filibuster to be changed or eliminated, especially when it comes to voting rights legislation.
Independent Maine Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats, said that if the GOP thwarts this bill, “we would either have to figure out a rule change or we have to try to have discussions toward a compromise solution.”
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, called for his Republican colleagues to debate the bill, urging them to not utilize the filibuster, which he described as “the weapon of Jim Crow,” to kill voting rights legislation.
President Biden has supported reforming the filibuster, or restoring it to a so-called “talking filibuster,” where lawmakers would have to physically stand and hold the floor in order to hold up a vote, but has resisted calls to eliminate it entirely. Moderates, like Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, have said that axing the filibuster is a non-starter.
The Senate’s Minority Leader, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, said Tuesday that he hoped and expected that no Republicans will support the bill, which he blasted as an attempt by Democrats “to have the federal government take over how elections are conducted all over America.”
“There is nothing necessary or bipartisan about this naked power grab, so it will continue to go nowhere,” McConnell said in a prescient statement last week.
A group of House Democrats wrote a letter to their Senate colleagues urging them to pass the bill.
"America is strongest when our democratic institutions are strong, when they reflect and project the confidence of our people," the group, led by Rep. Collin Allred of Texas, wrote in the letter. "The Freedom to Vote Act can fortify our democracy and bring Americans of all political stripes back into the town square, where the vitality of our ideas and experiences can be shared with respect, dynamism and hope for the future."
Allred was joined in the letter by 39 of his House colleagues from states where Republican-led legislatures have enacted restrictive voting measures, including Florida, Georgia and Texas, along with states like Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin, which Allred’s office described in a statement as “states where Republican-led legislatures are using partisan gerrymandering to protect their electoral advantage.”
“Passage of the Freedom to Vote Act is also critical to safeguarding every American’s sacred right to vote,” the letter reads. “Current efforts at the state level to diminish access to the ballot box or overturn valid election results are sowing discord in a myriad of different ways that undermine stability in every sector of our society.”
“Time is of the essence,” the lawmakers warned, a statement echoed by Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen.
“We have to very clearly demonstrate to some of our colleagues that we've exhausted every other option,” Van Hollen, a proponent of reforming the filibuster, said. “But patience is not eternal, time is running.”
"Republicans filibustered the Freedom to Vote Act," Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley wrote in a Twitter post after the vote. "The Senate is broken until we reform the filibuster."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., blasted the Republicans' filibuster a "shameful rejection," calling it "further evidence of the threat the filibuster poses to our democracy."
"It is essential that the Senate act on voting rights, as the House already has done, and I strongly support the elimination of the filibuster in order to achieve that and so many other things long overdue," Hoyer added.
Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams said in a Twitter post that Senate Republicans "again demonstrated their penchant for obstructionism."
"Instead of working with their colleagues toward progress on the freedom to vote, they refused to allow debate on the [Freedom To Vote Act]," she continued. "Our work continues as we urge Senators to pass this widely popular legislation."
White House officials has said that nothing has been ruled out, including carving out an exception to the filibuster for voting rights legislation, but are not yet indicating what path they will yet take, nor what President Biden is prepared to throw the weight of the office behind.
“If Republicans cannot come forward and stop standing in the way, if they can't support strengthening, protecting the fundamental right to vote, then Democrats are going to have to determine an alternative path forward,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.