By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
“There are moments so stark that they divide all that came before and everything that followed…And they force us to confront hard truths about ourselves, about our institutions, and about our democracy.” These are the words of President Biden in his Atlanta, Ga speech on January 12, one week before the Senate showdown on two major bills. As all worried Democrats could have told you, these were The Freedom to Vote Act, and The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—and the filibuster reform needed to permit a simple majority to pass them. Truer words than Biden’s were never spoken.
In language directed at the Senate as well as the nation, the President demanded—yes or no—will you stand against voter suppression and election subversion? Will you stand for democracy?
Stating the Senate’s choice in stark terms, President Biden asked point blank: “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
In short, senators were going to be judged by history on how they voted.
Where each member of the Senate now stands was made clear last week on January 19 when Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona joined the Republicans to save their precious filibuster and block passage of voting rights protections. By their votes, Manchin and Sinema, along with their Republican cohorts, declared themselves on the side of racial injustice and voter suppression.
The Senate Showdown
The intricacies of Senate rules and procedures are complicated and difficult for a lay person to parse, but as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said in a January 19 speech on the Senate floor, the basic issues are “quite simple.” The Senate currently is divided 50-50 between the Democrats and the Republicans, and no Republicans would vote for the voting rights bills. Nevertheless, if simple majority rule applied, the bills would have gotten at least 50 Democratic votes, with the Vice President casting the tie-breaking vote to pass them. But, under Senate rules, the bills would require 60 votes to pass—an unsurmountable obstacle in the Senate’s current climate.
For majority rule to apply, the Senate would have to change its rules to reestablish a talking filibuster. This would permit a Senate minority to debate at length and try to rally the public to its view, but would not permit it to block a simple majority vote forever.
Although Manchin and Sinema claim to support the voting rights bills, they voted with the Republicans, 52 to 48, to preserve the filibuster rule as it is.
Senator Sanders said he understood why no Republicans would vote for the Freedom to Vote bill, but was perplexed by the Manchin and Sinema votes, saying that he did not understand why two Democrats “who will vote for the Freedom to Vote Act, are not prepared to change the rules so that the bill could actually become law…You know, it’s like inviting somebody to lunch and putting out a great spread and saying you can’t eat.”
Senator Sanders may find Manchin and Sinema’s votes incomprehensible. I do not. Actions speak louder than words. And these two senators’ actions shout that they are actually against the protection of voting rights, and that they support the filibuster rule so that they can pretend they are for such rights but never be called upon to vote for the bills that would protect them.
The danger of the anti-democratic laws being passed in state legislatures are so plain that Manchin and Sinema cannot credibly claim ignorance of them. Yet they find excuses to reject the cure.
One day after Biden’s January 12 speech, Sinema gave her own speech, providing lip service to support for voting rights while staunchly maintaining that a change in the filibuster would increase divisive rifts between the parties, and reiterating her worship of the mythical beast: so-called bipartisanship.
Democratic New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s speech in the January 19 Senate debate served as a pointed rejoinder to Sinema’s view of divisiveness: “You want to know what divisive is? Telling people…that if you live in a predominantly minority area, we’re going to remove polling places and change laws so that Black folks disproportionately are waiting five, ten, 15 times longer.”
On January 18, Manchin told reporters there was no need for concern because voter suppression is being challenged in various courts. He followed that statement in the Senate the next day with a rambling, word salad that made no logical sense and added nothing in defense of his position.
Manchin said that, when he was Secretary of State in West Virginia, no one ever suggested to him that they should suppress the vote. But the fact that no one approached him to suppress the vote when he was secretary of state an eternity ago is entirely irrelevant to the suppression clearly occurring in 19-plus states today. Manchin knows this because Democratic state legislators from Texas met with him months ago, as have Georgia Senator Warnock and others—all telling him of the ongoing election corruption in their states.
Manchin claimed that a vote to change the filibuster rule would “forever alter the way this body functions.” But he did not oppose a filibuster change to permit raising the debt ceiling only a month ago. Not to mention that the filibuster has been changed in the past to permit simple majority votes on Supreme Court justices, and numerous other matters.
Manchin’s arguments became even more absurd as he went along. He spouted some strange, incoherent nonsense about a senatorial unwritten rule: “This is an unwritten rule and it’s the greatest one we have. It’s the rule of self-restraint which we have very little of any more, self-restraint. The rule will be broken … if the nuclear option is executed and…I cannot be a party to that.” Even apart from the weird reference to an unwritten rule of self-restraint, Manchin ignored the fact that, in the spirit of compromise, only a restoration of the old speaking filibuster was on the table. But he would not vote even for that.
Finally, Manchin made the absurd argument that if the filibuster rule is changed, “there’s not going to be any check on the Executive Branch.” This makes absolutely no sense since the filibuster is a tool only of the Senate, affecting only the Senate.
Some have suggested that it is unfair to make Manchin and Sinema shoulder all the blame when the entirety of Republican senators opposed both reform of the filibuster and the voting rights bills.
But you don’t expect your enemy—in this instance, the enemies of democracy—to take your side. However, you have a right to expect those who purport to be on your side to act accordingly.
The Republican Party is openly working towards establishment of a fascist authoritarian dictatorship. So, no quarter concerning protection for voting rights should be expected from them, let alone so-called bipartisanship. But Manchin and Sinema supposedly believe in democracy. They are not stupid. They have access to the same information as the rest of us. And whether they like it or not, it was their two votes that were placed to determine whether the country would have crucial tools to defend democracy. If we end up with a fascist authoritarian dictatorship, they will be to blame because their votes could have prevented it.
The Depths of the Manchin-Sinema Perfidy
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prevented state and local governments from passing laws denying American citizens the right to vote based on race. In particular, Section 5 required certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the Department of Justice or Washington, D.C.’s federal district court and be approved (i.e., “preclearance”) before it could go into effect. But, in 2013, in Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled that the old formula used to determine what states are required to get changes approved in advance was unconstitutional, thus killing the requirement until Congress enacts a new formula.
Since the Supreme Court scuttled this essential requirement, state voter suppression laws have been spreading like wildfire. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in 2021 alone, at least 34 voter suppression laws were passed in 19 states, and more than 440 such bills were introduced in 49 state legislatures. Among these were bills “to allow partisan actors to interfere with election processes and even to reject election results entirely.” In addition, at least 152 restrictive voting bills in 18 states will carry over into 2022.
In the Senate debate last week, Senator Booker took the floor and spoke with passion and rightful outrage, enumerating the many ways in which minorities are being targeted by these laws.
“My friends on the other side are saying that race is not an issue here?” said Booker. “I was flabbergasted that someone could stand up here and say there’s not a different experience for Blacks and whites for voting. I’m just going to continue to read the facts.”
Noting that the average number of voters per polling place in the metro Atlanta area has grown 40 percent since 2012, Senator Booker decried the amount of time minorities must wait in line to vote: “I mean, in what country are we where a certain minority in predominantly minority communities has to wait 10 times as long?” While Booker’s Republican colleagues maintain that removing drop boxes and limiting vote by mail to fewer days are innocuous changes, Booker rightly pointed out that these changes are deliberately designed to suppress the vote and create the long lines.
According to the Brennan Center, The Freedom to Vote Act would have instituted a national standard for voting access, including redistricting, election security, and campaign finance reforms. Reforms would also have included: making Election Day a public holiday; requiring voting lines to last no more than 30 minutes; restricting political removal of election officials; adopting automatic registration of eligible voters; and protecting against purging voter rolls.
The Brennan Center has also stated that The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would, in essence, have reinstated Section 5 of the 1965 act, preventing discriminatory practices and “protecting access to the vote for all eligible voters, regardless of race, color or membership in language minority groups.”
This is what Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have cost us.
Where Do We Go from Here?
There are some court cases challenging state corruptions of election processes that are ongoing. But court cases take time, and it is questionable whether they will bear fruit before the 2022 midterm election—the election that could consolidate partisan power over elections in advance of the 2024 presidential election.
Neither Manchin nor Sinema are up for reelection until 2024. But both of them should be primaried—not as retribution for bucking the party, but because we need Democrats who are democrats, and whose first fealty is to the principles of democracy.
According to Mother Jones, progressive organizations are backing out of support for Sinema in the wake of her vote. EMILY’s List, one of her top financial backers, announced that it would not support her in future elections if she continued to block the legislation. And of course, Sinema has done so.
On January 18, the reproductive rights group NARAL issued a statement saying it would not endorse “any U.S. Senator who doesn’t support changing the Senate rules to pass voting rights legislation.”
And on January 22, the Arizona Democratic party unanimously censured Sinema for her vote.
Arizona Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego may be drafted for a primary challenge to Sinema in 2024, and Bernie Sanders said he would consider supporting a potential primary challenger against her. This may be feasible since the progressive polling group Data for Progress reported Sinema’s net approval rating among likely primary voters was negative 45 percentage points as of October. Her speech and action during the last two weeks are hardly geared to improve upon that.
There has not, as yet, been a similar post-vote backlash against Manchin. Perhaps there is greater fear that he—as opposed to Sinema—would switch parties, giving Mitch McConnell and the Republicans control of the Senate during Biden’s current term. Nevertheless, Manchin should also be primaried, preferably by someone who can articulately explain to West Virginians how he has failed to represent their interests. And Manchin should be deprived of any funding from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
However, events may have overtaken the degree to which Manchin and Sinema can or will be held to account. It was announced today (January 26) that Justice Stephen Breyer will retire from the Supreme Court at the end of this term. Since the filibuster does not apply to Supreme Court appointments, Breyer’s replacement can be approved by the Senate with a simple majority.
But in this 50-50 Senate, Manchin and Sinema still hold the key to that majority. Either of them could scuttle a Biden nomination if annoyed by how their fellow Democrats have treated them in recent weeks—either by voting against Biden’s nominee, or by changing parties to give Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, the power to prevent any nomination at all from being considered. So Democrats will likely need to grit their teeth and handle the two dissident Senators with kid gloves yet again.
In any case, even if Sinema and Manchin cannot be replaced by true-blue Democrats, adding more Democrats to the Senate would eliminate the duo’s future ability to thwart filibuster reform and the passage of needed legislation. Of course, to get more Democrats into the Senate may be extremely difficult if nothing can be done to halt the Republicans’ corruption of state election processes.
Though the restrictive election laws are largely meant to target minority groups—Black and Hispanic people, students and the disabled—if white, able-bodied people think that this won’t also affect them, they will be in for a dismal surprise once authoritarianism takes hold. Win or lose, those who care to preserve democracy must continue the battle.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.