The elections of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia on January 5 allowed Democrats to take control of the US Senate and made the passage of the ambitious, transformational American Rescue Plan possible.
Yet while the rescue plan did not receive the support of a single Republican in the US Senate or US House of Representatives, according to a recent CNN poll, 61% of Americans supported the bill — with several key provisions garnering even greater support, including the $1,400 stimulus checks and larger tax credits for families.
This disparity between who is heard and who speaks matters. The 50 senators who moved this bill forward represent 41.5 million more Americans than the 50 senators who opposed it (one Republican senator missed the vote but still acknowledged his opposition to it). Further, were it not for a budget bill loophole of the Senate’s historically racist and indisputably undemocratic filibuster rule, a bill that will slash poverty, save businesses and deploy vaccines nationwide would have failed.
These dramatic changes are happening only because of the willingness of voters to brave obstacles, threats and the pandemic to cast ballots in November 2020 and again, in Georgia, in January 2021. Together, millions of Americans banded together to elect President Joe Biden, and then to send Georgia’s first Jewish and first Black senators to Washington, DC. That these men came from a former Confederate state is not lost on those who know its history.
Shamefully but not surprisingly, Republican state legislators in Georgia and across the country have responded to Democratic victories by attempting to resurrect parts of that painful history. They have responded to record numbers of voters of color and young voters by pressing legislation to stifle their participation.
This is not hyperbole: according to the Brennan Center for Justice, Republicans have proposed more than 250 voter suppression bills in 43 states, leaning on the decentralization of election laws that limit an eligible voter’s registration access and ability to vote depending on the state in which the voter lives. Black and brown voters in Georgia, Latinx and Native American voters in Arizona and young voters in New Hampshire are particularly vulnerable. In each of these states, these voters have played a critical role in statewide Democratic victories, despite Republican domination of the governorship and the state legislatures.
Across the country, many Republicans have weaponized the 2020 election lies as the impetus to propose sweeping efforts to suppress voter access. The litany of proposed changes is dizzying — from making voting by mail more difficult by eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, to limiting early voting options to restricting ballot drop box locations.
Yet, in states like Arizona and Georgia, Republicans have routinely relied on a variety of available voting options to regularly win elections. For example, a bipartisan report by Republican and Democratic strategists found that in state after state, voting by mail can — and does — benefit both parties. But state Republicans now want to change the rules because constituencies that do not vote for them in large numbers — Black, brown and young Americans — voted against them in the 2020 election and 2021 Georgia runoff.
In Georgia, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed HB 531, a bill that, among other suppressive measures, limits weekend early voting. Sunday voting is used disproportionately by Black voters who engage in the “Souls to the Polls” tradition, often voting with fellow Black voters after attending church. The chief sponsor of this legislation is state representative Barry Fleming, a man who as county attorney defended the county’s practice of sending deputy sheriffs to the homes of Black voters demanding they prove their voting eligibility.
Eliminating voter access under the guise of race-neutral actions that clearly target communities of color is nothing short of Jim Crow 2.0. And, then as now, only the federal government has the power to stop race-based voter suppression and make sure that Americans’ access to democracy does not depend on the state where they live. We saw it work in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act. Now is the time to defend democracy again.
The elections clause of the US Constitution grants Congress the right to “make or alter” state regulations regarding elections — ensuring that democracy is not diminished by geography. H.R. 1, the For the People Act, is key legislation that will make critical reforms for voting rights. The For the People Act has provisions to empower voters and expand access to the franchise, outlaw voter purging, restore the Voting Rights Act and protect our right to free, fair and safe elections.
With the adoption by the US House of Representatives, this vital legislation now awaits Senate action. In H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, Congress would restore federal pre-clearance requirements, allowing the federal government to stop state attempts to disenfranchise voters. In short, this legislation would expand and strengthen the federal government’s ability to respond to voting discrimination at the state level.
As a woman of faith, I believe in miracles. Perhaps 10 Republican senators will see the light, step forward to save American democracy and guarantee every eligible voter has equal access to the ballot box. Perhaps 10 Republicans will at least allow democracy-saving legislation to come up for debate and a vote. We have seen this kind of bipartisanship before when attacks on our democracy captured the attention of a nation and pricked the conscience of those who would have put their power above that of the people.
However, if Republican senators, representing a minority of Americans, attempt to thwart much-needed legislation to protect voting rights for all, Democrats should take bold action to protect our democracy. Exempting legislation from a Senate filibuster is not unprecedented. Republicans used a carve-out of the filibuster rule to pass a $1.5 trillion tax cut that benefited many wealthy and ultrawealthy Americans. They also were exempted from the filibuster rule to try and take health care away from 16 million Americans, failing by one vote. Both parties have met the constitutional imperative to fill judicial and cabinet posts by suspending the filibuster.
And a filibuster carve-out allowed the Senate to provide real Covid-19 relief to the American people. The same exception, if necessary, should be made to protect our democracy.
Nothing is more essential to the durability of our democracy than the ability of the people to speak, regardless of ZIP code, race, age or income. Protection of that right has only one champion empowered to make it so — the US Congress. The House has spoken. Now, the Senate must lead.