If not for the election of Sens. Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia, there would be no Democratic majority in the Senate and likely no covid-19 relief plan (certainly not one amounting to $1.9 trillion). Some, if not many, of President Biden’s nominees would also have been rejected.

We saw during the previous two administrations that when Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is majority leader, a Democratic president may not get an up-or-down vote on a Supreme Court nominee. Bipartisan bills passed by the House — on everything from drug prices to voting reform to protection for “dreamers” — die on his desk. (McConnell’s threat to resort to “scorched earth” tactics if Democrats junk the filibuster might carry more weight if he had not already adopted a scorched-earth approach regardless of which party runs the Senate.)

But Warnock, specifically, does more than add a 50th vote in the Senate for Democrats. He adds moral and intellectual heft to the body. During his maiden speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, he delivered a devastating indictment of Republican efforts to restrict African Americans’ access to the ballot.

Using the cadence and energy honed as a pastor, he recalled that “just a few months after [Rep. John Lewis’s] death, there are those in the Georgia legislature, some who even dare to praise his name, that are now trying to get rid of Sunday ‘souls to the polls,’ making it a crime for people who pray together to get on a bus together in order to vote together.” He continued, “Make no mistake, this is democracy in reverse. Rather than voters being able to pick the politicians, the politicians are trying to cherry-pick their voters. I say this cannot stand.”

Warnock was unsparing in his description of “Jim Crow in new clothes,” which amounts to “a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights and voter access unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era.” He decried that the win-at-any-cost mentality puts “craven lust for power” ahead of democracy.

The senator made clear that the filibuster, a tool for the minority to thwart the majority, cannot be used to damage fundamental rights such as voting. “It is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate, while refusing to protect minority rights in the society,” he said. “Colleagues, no Senate rule should overrule the integrity of our democracy, and we must find a way to pass voting rights whether we get rid of the filibuster or not.”

The force of his message, I’m afraid, could get lost in the shuffle. Republicans absurdly deny they are engaged in voting suppression, and the media is straining, despite all evidence to the contrary, to treat both parties as though they are acting in good faith.

Voting rights must be preserved, or we have no democracy. If Republicans want to preserve the filibuster, the onus is on them is to allow an up-or-down vote on protection of voting rights. If that does not suit them, they must cease their onslaught of voter suppression bills in the states. That means abandoning the Big Lie that the election was stolen as an excuse to curtail no-excuse absentee voting, early voting, Sunday voting and automatic registration and to prevent reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act preclearance process.

Warnock’s remarks were echoed in a succinct and powerful declaration from the Rev. William J. Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign and Penda Hair of Forward Justice, who write in a post for Democracy Docket:

The myth of voter fraud placed our democracy at risk of armed insurrection, and the more than 250 voter suppression proposals already advanced in statehouses this year place our democracy at risk of overthrow by voter suppression. It is time to put an end to this reign of voter suppression.
Democracy should not be “zero sum.” Congress must immediately enact legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act and to set minimum federal requirements for practices that encourage and facilitate voting, taking into account the history of racial subjugation in America and the real-life circumstances of voters whose economic and family situations make it difficult or impossible for them to succeed in the obstacle course states continue to erect at the ballot box.

Warnock impressively puts the issue in moral and constitutional terms. We cannot allow voter suppression, period. Republicans cannot deprive Americans of their constitutional rights. Especially after the events of Jan. 6, that would be a debasement of our democracy “in new clothes.”

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