Time to Go: Protecting Voters' Rights Means Easing the Filibuster's Stranglehold
Folk singer Phil Ochs was biting about one state's especially noxious mistreatment of Black Americans. "Here's to the land you've torn out the heart of," goes the refrain in "Here's to the State of Mississippi," Ochs' 1965 protest song. "Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of."
Georgia has now taken center stage as our country's poster child for voter suppression. Last week, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a bill that had rocketed through Georgia's Republican-controlled legislature. Its aim was to discourage voters of color from exercising their right to vote. This was accompanied by the usual straight-faced claptrap that the legislation was really intended to enhance "election integrity." Few over the age of 6 could have believed this: One of the bill's signature provisions was making it a crime to offer food or water to voters who might be waiting in line for hours in the hot Georgia sun to cast their ballot. Trying to help one's fellow Americans avoid heatstroke while waiting to vote does not exactly constitute election subversion.
Another "election integrity" provision authorizes the shutting down of voting in some cases as early as 5 p.m., exactly when working people get off work and are actually in a position to go vote. Another requires photo IDs to vote absentee, which will clearly disadvantage low-income voters who do not have driver's licenses because they do not have cars, either because they cannot afford them or because they live in inner cities.
As of mid-February, Republican legislators in 43 states had introduced over 250 bills that restrict access to the ballot. These would restrict mail-in and early voting and authorize the near-elimination of ballot drop-off boxes. Republicans insist that reducing voter turnout in communities of color is the furthest thing from their minds. Of course they do. As George Orwell wrote, a pickpocket does not go to the races with a sign that says "thief" on his lapel.
Enter the For the People Act, a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives to enact a series of federal safeguards against the kind of election manipulation that Republicans around the country are raising to an art form. According to one poll last month, 68% of Americans support the bill, including 57% of Republicans. Yet in a nation that has celebrated itself for having a representative government, the bill is presently slated to die in the Senate, strangled by the Senate procedural rule commonly referred to as the "filibuster." The term is something of a misnomer; the rule that guarantees gridlock actually simply provides that no bill can be voted upon unless 60 senators agree that it can. Put another way, Democrats need to find 10 Republican Senators to agree to a law that would safeguard communities of color against attempts to suppress their votes. Pigs will not only fly but circumnavigate the globe before that occurs. The only solution is to eliminate or modify the filibuster.
The filibuster rule is often defended as encouraging bipartisanship and good faith in Congress. But this is more of a hoot than a hope. Over 145 Republican members of Congress voted to block an election that they knew Joe Biden had won. Senate Republicans have made clear that, just as their single most important goal when Barack Obama was elected was to make him a one-term president, so too are they committed to stonewalling Biden's legislative agenda. One has to consume a fair amount of fairy dust to believe that bipartisanship and good faith are on congressional Republicans' minds these days.
The right to vote is the mother of our democracy, and it is in danger. Reforming the filibuster to permit the majority of both houses of Congress to protect communities of color against attempts to suppress their votes isn't procedural reform. It is the key to preserving the America that most of us cherish.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast. To find out more about Jeff Robbins and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.