For the fifth time during the last year, Senate Republicans blocked Democrats on Wednesday from passing sweeping legislation that would roll back GOP efforts to make it harder to vote.
Their justification: there is no GOP effort to make it harder to vote.
“The big lie on the other side is that state legislatures controlled by Republicans are busily at work trying to make it difficult for people to vote,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week.
That, of course, is exactly what Republicans have been doing.
Nineteen states passed 34 new laws in 2021 reducing voting access, according to the Brennan Center, which catalogued at least 16 different ways Republicans have sought to restrict voting rights, including making it more difficult to vote by mail and easier to remove voters from the rolls, cutting the number of early voting days, erecting new barriers to voter registration, and reducing the number of polling places.
Of course, it’s in McConnell’s interest to deny this. More surprising was how Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who co-wrote the Freedom to Vote Act precisely to counter these GOP voter suppression bills, claimed that no voters would be disenfranchised after he and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) announced they would side with Republicans to block a change to the Senate rules that would have allowed his bill to pass.
“[People say] you’re making it so that they’re not going to be able to vote in the next election,” a reporter queried Manchin on Tuesday.
“The government will stand behind them to make sure they have a right to vote,” Manchin said. “We act like we’re going to obstruct people from voting. That’s not going to happen.”
But Congress is the government, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that voter disenfranchisement could skyrocket in 2022 because of new GOP voting restrictions and the Senate’s failure to block them.
As the Senate debated voting rights legislation this week, large urban counties in Texas reported that they were rejecting as many as half of all mail ballot applications for the upcoming March primary because of stringent voter ID requirements passed by the GOP-controlled legislature in August, an example of how even seemingly small bureaucratic changes can have an extremely burdensome effect on voters.
Texas already makes it incredibly difficult to vote by mail, limiting such ballots to those who are over 65, out of town during the election, in jail, or have a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents them from going to the polls (fear of contracting Covid doesn’t qualify). Under the new ID requirements imposed by the legislature, voters must put their driver’s license number, state ID number, or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their mail ballot applications. But here’s the catch: if that number doesn’t match the one the voter used when they registered, their application will be rejected. Moreover, some voters are submitting applications on old forms that don’t have a space for the now-required ID number. And, to make matters worse, it’s now a felony for election officials to send a mail ballot application to voters who didn’t specifically request one—making it more difficult to fix any errors.
As a result, the number of rejected applications in Houston’s Harris County has increased by a staggering 700 percent compared to the last midterm election in 2018. “If the numbers hold,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said on Wednesday, “we would end up rejecting or at least flagging for rejection 27,500 applications. That is more than enough potential voters to sway the outcome of an election.”
Harris County Judge @LinaHidalgoTX warns about effects of voter restriction laws already playing out in Texas.
She says 27,500 vote-by-mail applications could be flagged for rejection in the next election, enough “to sway the outcome of an election.” pic.twitter.com/TYlqocIojK
— The Recount (@therecount) January 19, 2022
The Texas law, like virtually every other voting restriction adopted by Republicans over the past year, passed on a party-line, simple-majority vote, yet Manchin and Sinema blocked the Senate from protecting voting rights in the same manner, insisting on requiring a bipartisan supermajority by upholding the filibuster.
The debate over voting rights on Wednesday underscored how unrepresentative of the country the Senate has become. The 48 Democrats who supported reforming the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation represented 34 million more Americans than the 52 senators (every Republicans plus Manchin and Sinema) who upheld it, according to data compiled by Alex Tausanovitch of the Center for American Progress. Far from encouraging the Senate to come together, Manchin and Sinema allowed 41 GOP senators representing just 21 percent of the country to block a bill they both supported that would protect voting rights for tens of millions of Americans, reinforcing how the filibuster has historically been used to block civil rights efforts.
Their decision to essentially give McConnell and other Republicans who deny that voter suppression even exists veto power over protecting voting rights brings to mind the end of Reconstruction, when a handful of Republicans joined with Southern Democrats in 1891 to filibuster federal legislation that would have blocked things like poll taxes and literacy tests in states like Mississippi.
A bill giving the federal government the power to supervise Southern elections “ought not to pass, because it never will be enforced; because it will consolidate the Southern whites; because it will bring further misery upon the Southern blacks, and because it will increase sectional animosities and kindle anew the discords of the past,” argued Nevada Republican Senator William Stewart. That sounded very much like Kyrsten Sinema last week, who said that “efforts to fix these problems on bare majorities on a party-line basis only exacerbate the root causes that gave way to these state laws in the first place.”
But the federal government’s failure to enforce Black voting rights didn’t persuade Southern Democrats to become more moderate; it emboldened them to implement 75 years of Jim Crow. “That filibuster echoed in this country for 75 years,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said on the Senate floor on Wednesday night. “I pray that we don’t look back on this day and realize the level of mistake they made in 1891.”
The parties have since reversed their positions on civil rights, and as the Republican Party radicalizes against democracy in the thrall of Trump’s Big Lie, the failure of the Senate to protect voting rights is certain to encourage the GOP to go further and further to undermine democracy, to the point where they can hold power no matter how large a majority of Americans opposes their agenda.
The disenfranchisement we’re seeing in Texas right now is all-too-likely to become the new normal.