U.S. Senate Republicans again block debate on voting rights legislation

The Freedom to Vote Act would make Election Day a national holiday and set minimum standards each state must have for elections, including two weeks of early voting and an option for same-day voter registration

By: - October 21, 2021 12:25 pm

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 23: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to the Senate floor following a recess in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol on January 23, 2020 in Washington, DC. Democratic House managers will continue their opening arguments on Thursday as the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump continues. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Allison Winter

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate Republicans blocked the advance of voting rights legislation Wednesday, the second time this year—thwarting again Democrats’ attempts to pass federal protections for voters amid a slew of new state elections laws.

“When we are faced with a coordinated effort across our country to limit the freedom to vote, we must stand up and do what is right,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who sponsored the bill, said on the Senate floor just before the party-line vote.

The Freedom to Vote Act would make Election Day a national holiday and set minimum standards each state must have for elections, including two weeks of early voting and an option for same-day voter registration.

Supporters of the legislation say it is necessary to protect American democracy from a recent push to restrict voting access.

Nineteen states have approved more stringent voting requirements this year.  Republican state legislators pushed for the restrictions, partly in response to former President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the 2020 election.

“If there is anything worthy of the Senate’s attention, it is unquestionably this,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who vowed to bring up the issue again.  “If there is anything that merits debate on this floor, it’s protecting our democracy from the forces that are trying to unravel it from the inside out”

But the 49-51 vote along party lines—with Schumer voting in opposition for procedural reasons—demonstrates the challenge Democrats face to advance their agenda in the evenly divided Senate. They need 60 votes and support from Republicans to get past a filibuster and move to debate and a vote on a bill.

Even after moderate Democrats made concessions, no Republicans were willing to let the bill advance and for now it is stalled.

The failure likely will encourage those who want to change the Senate’s filibuster rule.

“Protecting the fundamental right to vote is not a partisan issue, and the Senate filibuster should not be used to block debate of this critical legislation,” said William Roberts, managing director for Democracy and Government Reform at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

“Lawmakers should take immediate action to reform the arcane filibuster rules so the Senate can debate and pass this measure. The future of our democracy is at stake,” Roberts said.

The Manchin effect

House Democrats passed a more expansive voting rights proposal, called the For the People Act, last March.

But Republicans blocked debate on it in the Senate last summer.

In response, a group of Senate Democrats drafted a scaled-back proposal.They added a requirement for voter identification at the behest of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, who had voted to advance the earlier bill but still had problems with it.

The new proposal also scaled back controversial provisions affecting the Federal Elections Commission and threw out some revisions to the ethics laws.

Klobuchar introduced the Freedom to Vote Act. Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Manchin were among the original cosponsors.

“Now, crafting this bill, as you know, was no easy feat,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “It took months of hard work, compromise, and gathering feedback from experts on sensible policies that have been proven to work.”

Manchin was key in trying to gain GOP support for the bill, according to Schumer, and met with Republican senators over the past few weeks.

But in the end, Democrats were far from the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky remained staunchly opposed to the bill, which he described as a federal “election takeover.”

“This latest umpteenth iteration is only a compromise in the sense that the left and the far left argued among themselves about exactly how much power to grab in which areas,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

The Republican leader urged his colleagues to vote against the proposal and “continue to do the job the framers assigned it, and stop terrible ideas in their tracks.”

Schumer asked Republicans to support the cloture vote and said he would allow a “full-fledged debate” with amendments.

“What we can’t accept is a situation where one side is calling for bipartisan debate and bipartisan cooperation while the other refuses to even engage in a dialogue. If our Republican colleagues don’t like our ideas, they have a responsibility to present their own,” Schumer said.

There is a growing push from progressives to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.

More than 80 progressive groups have formed a coalition, Fix Our Senate, to call for filibuster reform. Eli Zupnick, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide who now works as spokesman for the group, called Wednesday’s vote a “moment of truth” for Democrats to overhaul the filibuster.

Democrats do not yet have enough votes to kill the filibuster altogether. At least two Democrats, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, oppose eliminating it.

But some lawmakers have suggested changing Senate rules to exempt voting rights from the filibuster or altering the rules on debate and amendments so more members of the minority might be willing to proceed.

State voting restrictions 

The federal effort comes amid a wave of new restrictions enacted this year in  state legislatures across the country, most of them from Republicans.

The number of restrictive voting laws approved in states in 2021 was unprecedented: Nineteen states enacted 33 laws with provisions that will make it harder for some constituents to vote, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.

State lawmakers in 49 states introduced more than 425 bills with provisions to restrict voting in the 2021 legislative sessions, according to the center.

Some new state laws include provisions to impose more stringent voter identification requirements, ban snacks or water to voters waiting in line, reduce polling place availability, shorten the time-frame for mail ballots or limit the number of mail ballot drop boxes.

Kaine said in a call with reporters Wednesday that his motivation to work on the bill was driven in part by the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, from rioters who wanted to overturn the presidential election.

“Those same lies are being used in states across the country to make it harder for people to vote,” Kaine said.

Likewise, Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, urged his colleagues to protect voting rights.

“Most countries that have a January sixth never survive to a January 20th,” Bennet said.

Some advocacy groups pushing for federal protections for voting rights—including the NAACP—have said the Biden administration and Democrats should be working with more urgency.

Small groups of protestors stood outside the White House and the vice president’s residence this week with signs about voting rights.

Just before the voting rights vote, Vice President Kamala Harris came to the Senate floor to break the tie on a vote to confirm a nominee, and she stayed throughout the vote on the voting rights bill.

Biden and Harris this week called the Democratic senators who have been leading the effort, according to the White House.

In a press briefing earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pushed back against the notion that Biden has not done enough to support the bill, placing the blame on Republicans who will not allow it to move forward.

Biden called the party-line Republican opposition “unconscionable” in a statement released today asking for support of the bill.

“The right to vote—to vote freely, to vote fairly, and to have your vote counted—is fundamental. It should be simple and straightforward. Let there be a debate and let there be a vote,” Biden said.

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.