Sorry, there is no third way here. Yes, Democrats could avoid a complete repeal of the filibuster by getting rid of it only for certain categories of bills — for example, those related to voting rights and democratic reforms. But living with the status quo means capitulating to obstruction. Democrats have only 50 votes plus Vice President Harris’s tie-breaker. They will never get 10 votes from a GOP that can’t even find a way to exile white-supremacist extremists from its ranks.
There is genuine urgency because Republican legislators throughout the country have been moving rapidly to rig the 2022 elections by throwing new obstacles in the way of voters.
Last week, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that, “In a backlash to historic voter turnout in the 2020 general election, and grounded in a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, legislators have introduced three times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to this time last year.”
The 106 bills the center identified in 28 states sought to limit mail voting, impose stricter voter-ID requirements, roll back voter-friendly registration policies and enable more aggressive voter purges. What Donald Trump and his mob could not achieve before President Biden’s inauguration will instead come through the back door of state-level legislation.
When it passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 — with the support and leadership of many Republicans — Congress recognized that defending democracy requires national action. The proposed For the People Act lives squarely in that tradition. Congressional leaders underscored its significance by designating it H.R. 1 and S. 1.
The bill takes direct aim at voter suppression by giving all Americans easy access to postage-free mail voting under a set of clear national rules, requiring drop boxes to make casting ballots easier and guaranteeing at least 15 days of early voting. It allows for Election-Day registration and constrains voter purges that often throw legitimate voters off the rolls.
Other provisions would end partisan gerrymandering by requiring all states to set up independent commissions to draw congressional district lines, set up new safeguards against foreign money and subject dark money to effective disclosure rules.
The bill takes an enormous step toward democratizing political contributions (in a way that even a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives would have trouble overturning) by creating a voluntary system in which candidates could avoid big money donations. Contributions of $200 or less would be matched 6 to 1 by a fund financed not by taxpayers but by a small surcharge on the federal government’s criminal fines and penalties against corporations, corporate executives and high-income tax evaders. For the first time in history, small donors could overwhelm deep-pocketed interests.
These provisions would be worthy in a normal time. But Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election, focused especially on high turnout among Black voters, make the For the People Act and a new Voting Rights Act imperative. Trump lost, but the impulses he represents are still powerful.
And if Democrats are not willing to challenge a filibuster against political reform on moral grounds, they might consider self-interest: The voter suppression actions across the country would hit the young and racial minorities the hardest.
“In addition to the millions and millions of voters who will be denied their sacred right to vote,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a veteran reformer, “the Democrats have to enact this quickly and have it in effect for the 2022 congressional races, or pay a very heavy price at the polls.”
When we look back at all the great legislative struggles in American history, we don’t remember the procedural scuffles involved; we remember the achievements they brought to life.
Senators need to ask themselves which sentence they would like historians to attach to their names. One could be: “I saved the filibuster.” Here’s hoping that most of them would prefer: “I saved democracy.”