by Lauren V. Williams
Republicans have declared war on democracy and moderate Democrats are helping them win it. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Republicans have used their lies about voter fraud to justify their new Jim Crow laws. Over 250 bills have been introduced in over 40 state legislatures to attack the most common voting methods of people of color. They are restricting vote by mail, adding additional voter ID requirements, rolling back early voting, purging the voter rolls and closing hundreds of polling locations in communities of color across the country. Make no mistake, a new Jim Crow is developing across America.
Democrats have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to stop Republicans from chipping away at our democracy. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act are the Civil Rights Bills of the 21st century. They will make America into the democracy it proclaims to be. It expands early voting and vote by mail, prohibits voter roll purges, tackles voter ID law, and includes dozens of other pro-democracy reforms. However, its biggest obstacles are not Republicans – its Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema. Sinema is committed to keeping the filibuster, an arcane Senate rule that requires 60 votes to end debate on legislation. In essence, the filibuster requires legislation to get 60 votes to pass the Senate. Sinema says the filibuster is a Founders’ tradition that fosters bipartisanship. Not only is her premise for keeping the filibuster factually incorrect, Sinema’s dedication to the Senate rule will backfire on her, the people of color who fought to elect her and American democracy itself.
The filibuster is a vestige of Jim Crow, not the will of the Founders. In fact, the filibuster was created by mistake as an unanticipated consequence of Aaron Burr purging a bunch of unnecessary Senate rules in 1805. Back then, the Senate expected most issues to be brought to a vote. Hence, the filibuster was rarely used. After the Civil War, the Senate become more polarized as more issues of civil rights, election law and federal nominations came to the Senate floor. The filibuster became an obstacle to racial progress because it empowered the greatest opposers to racial equality. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond filibustered for over 24 hours straight to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The bill eventually died. When the Civil Rights Act was reintroduced in 1964, it was famously filibustered for over 60 days. Although public pressure finally prevailed for the Civil Rights Act, other bills meant to stop racial terrorism, such as anti-lynching law, weren’t so lucky.
As Washington has become the hyper-partisan machine that it is today, the filibuster has ensured that people of color bear the brunt of Washington’s inaction. Climate change, police brutality and a low minimum wage disproportionately hurt people of color. However, the 60-vote threshold has killed many bills addressing these issues. Even if you could get a bipartisan deal that’s 55 votes or 58 votes, the 60-vote threshold has empowered a minority of Senators (that represents a vast minority of Americans) to kill legislation that’s not only broadly popular, but integral to racial progress.
The most egregious facet of Kyrsten Sinema’s position is that by allowing Republicans to disenfranchise people of color, she’s disenfranchising her own voters. 86% of Black voters, 67% of Latino voters and 39% of Native American, Asian and other ethnicity voters voted for Kyrsten Sinema in 2018. Although Black voters are the smallest slice of the Arizona electorate at only 5%, 86% of that slice is 4.3% – almost 2 points larger than Sinema’s 2018 margin of victory. Meanwhile, Arizona Republicans are some of the worst offenders of voter suppression. Maricopa County, which is one-third Latino, has closed 171 voting locations since 2012. This forces people of color, who are less likely to have personal transportation, to travel large distances to vote. Arizona is enacting stricter voter ID requirements in the aftermath of the 2020 election although people of color are less likely to have ID. Nationally, 25% of voting age Black Americans don’t have a government issued ID whereas only 8% of white voting age Americans can say the same. Arizona Republicans are suffocating the use of vote by mail to drive down turnout. Arizona Republicans are even in the Supreme Court right now arguing changes to election law that would gut what remains of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Once Arizona Republicans are done instituting a new Jim Crow, Kyrsten Sinema won’t be winning by 2.5%. She’ll be losing to a Republican by 0.2% because at the end of the day, that’s the whole point.
Even if you take the racial component out of the consequences of the filibuster, the filibuster incentivizes Republicans to kill the legislative victories of Democrats that they could run on for re-election. Mitch McConnell famously said he would do everything in his power to make Barack Obama a one term president. Since the Democratic agenda, such as climate change, the minimum wage and Civil Rights, is largely legislative, they need the 60-vote threshold of the filibuster to be met. That’s why many of Obama’s bills died in the Senate. On the other hand, many Republican priorities, such as tax cuts and judicial nominations, can be achieved with 50 votes. Tax cuts can be achieved through budget reconciliation. Judicial appointments now only need 50 votes to pass after Mitch McConnell eliminated the judicial filibuster in 2017 (which no one outside Washington remembers).
Republicans want the chambers back in 2022 and 2024. They are already repeating their Obama presidency playbook by uniting to oppose Biden’s COVID relief bill. Republicans will be just as united against the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a bill that prevents their legislatures from rigging elections, and any other promises that Democrats made to their constituents.
Although it’s clear that Sinema wants to develop the “maverick” reputation known to many Arizona politicians, she’s choosing the wrong battles. Republicans are chipping away at American democracy piece by piece. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act are the best ways to stop them. If Sinema refuses to eliminate the filibuster, she can tell Democratic voters in 2022 and 2024 that she was more loyal to a relic of Jim Crow than legislation on climate, the minimum wage or Civil Rights. If her base, which is filled with people of color, hasn’t been chipped away by Republican disenfranchisement, then they will remember Sinema as the latest in the long line of politicians who cared more about their reputations than the people who elected them.