Calls for Accountability and Reform

Update 578 — Infamous Anniversary
Calls for Accountability and Reform

If the GOP is right and there was an insurrection on November 3, 2020, it succeeded in removing incumbent President Trump decisively. In truth, the only (unsuccessful) insurrection attempted on January 6, 2021, perpetuated by Trump himself, the incumbent bent on staying in power. A year after an attack that even the Confederate Army did not attempt, we look not back but forward to the threats to self-government facing the nation.

Another January 6th is a moment of resolve to meet the ongoing challenges facing our democracy. The Big Lie and threats to democracy inform new state election laws across the country. Without Congressional response — passing the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — we will lack the federal standards for elections needed to protect our democracy. In this update, we reflect on January 6th, the year since, and the filibuster reform challenge that lies ahead for the Senate.




Threats Against Democracy

A year ago today, we witnessed the lengths the most radical Trump supporters will go to overturn the will of American voters. The violence and disorder from that day reflect many Americans’ commitment to the Big Lie, and to a political system that does not reflect the electorate. Trump and his allies promoted misinformation about election fraud across the country to inspire this commitment. While the estimated2,000 people who entered the Capitol seems like a small faction, around 65 million Americans believe the 2020 election was illegitimate, despite no proof of fraud. 

In the year since we’ve learned more about what transpired that day and what led up to the insurrection thanks to the important investigative work of the January 6th Select Committee. The committee has worked fast and effectively to uncover important findings to prevent future attacks on the peaceful transfer of power. The Select Committee plans to release a report of their findings this summer. The work of the Select Committee is popular with about 7 in 10 Americans supporting the investigation into January 6th.

Despite the work of the committee, widespread disinformation and the erosion of trust in the electoral process continue to grow and gain power from the regressive election laws that have been enacted in the past year across the country. Republican legislatures have passed dozens of election sabotage and voter suppression laws. 

Over 400 bills have been introduced in 49 states, and 47 anti-voter laws have been enacted in 22 states. These bills would make it harder to vote by getting rid of drop boxes, reducing vote by mail, closing polling places, making it harder to get and stay registered, and limiting early voting. Many of the state bills attempt to subvert or sabotage future elections by replacing nonpartisan election officials with partisan figures, often chosen by the state legislature. Election officials across the country are being harassed and threatened for administering fair elections that fail to adhere to the Big Lie. These laws set the stage for future elections where the right to vote is restricted, and partisan figures can choose which ballots to count and whether or not to certify elections, effectively overturning the will of the voters. The threat to democracy posed on January 6th is now being codified into law.

Last Year in Congress

The aftermath of January 6th and the changes to election laws across the states underscores the urgency to make sure our political system works for all Americans, including the Black and Brown Americans who have so often been excluded from it. This is a popular belief: around half of Americans believe standardizing elections across the country will create fairer elections. For the past two Congresses, protecting voting rights and ensuring fair elections has been a top priority. In the first half of the 117th Congress, there was action on this priority with more to come in 2022.

In December, the House passed the Protecting Our Democracy Act. The bill is largely a response to Trump’s abuses of power and is the most recent of several democracy reform bills passed in the House. In March, the House passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act. The bill has been Democrats’ first priority since last Congress. The For the People Act was a transformative package of democracy reform legislation that would strengthen and reform voting rights, election security, campaign finance, and ethics standards for the federal government. In August, the House passed H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The bill would restore the strength of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by reestablishing the preclearance formula. 

The Senate has taken up both H.R. 1 and H.R. 4, but both have been obstructed by the filibuster, a relic of Jim Crow weaponized by the Republican party to block progress on a host of issues wildly popular among the American people. In an attempt to gain Republican support to meet the 60 vote threshold to overcome a filibuster, H.R. 1 was changed to the Freedom to Vote Act, which is smaller in scope, but still an ambitious voting rights and elections overhaul bill. S.4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, was changed to include the Native American Voting Rights Act and the Election Worker and Polling Place Protection Act. These revised bills did not gain the support of Republicans, despite having the full support of every Democratic Senator, and were unable to overcome the super-majority vote requirement imposed by the filibuster. At the end of the year, Democratic Senators accelerated conversations on filibuster reform, and as we move into the new year, it is the first item on the Senate’s agenda. Schumer plans to force a vote on the filibuster no later than January 17.

Clock Ticking for Senate Democrats

As we begin the new year, the threats to democracy are closing in. Voters are starting to feel the effects of new voter suppression laws, Republicans are drawing gerrymandered districts, and Big Lie conspiracists are ramping up 2022 campaigns for key election administration positions. Schumer warned on Monday that the Senate is prepared to debate changes to the filibuster if Republicans continue to block the advancement of voting rights legislation. In his Dear Colleague Letter, Schumer set a deadline of Jan. 17 for the chamber to consider revising the filibuster rules.

Schumer argued that with the first anniversary of the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol this week, Congress needs to understand that the attack “was a symptom of a broader illness — an effort to delegitimize our election process and the Senate must advance systemic democracy reforms to repair our republic or else the events of that day will not be an aberration — they will be the new norm.”

Senate Democrats who understand the urgency and gravity of these threats know that there are a few options on the table, but they all require one course of action: filibuster reform. There are several options for filibuster reform. Filibuster reform must be meaningful to allow debate and pass legislation, and practical, to get the votes needed to make a rule change. Meaningful reform will either reduce debate time or the votes required to pass legislation. There are two main reforms Senators could pursue:

  • Democracy Carve-Out: This method follows the recent changes to the filibuster by creating exceptions for specific topics but would not help with other legislation. 
  • Talking Filibuster: This would restore the Senate to how it previously functioned. The reform would increase the visibility of the filibuster, and when coupled with another reform like time limits, could be productive in allowing debate and final passage of legislation, but is insufficient to restore the Senate to full functionality.

President Biden has waded into the debate, saying he supports creating an exception to the filibuster in the Senate in order to pass voting rights legislation. Biden told ABC News’s David Muir in a portion of an interview that aired on December 23 that he would support fundamental changes to Senate rules in order to pass election reform legislation, including a carveout for voting rights legislation

The Bottom Line

Democrats can pass the JLVRAA and the FTVA if they are willing to go it alone. The only obstacle in the way of enactment of these laws is the Senate’s arcane filibuster rule. Ten months from the 2022 midterm elections, it is up to Senate Democrats to decide whether to advance these pro-democracy laws alone or allow Republicans to use the filibuster as the weapon that murdered democracy.

If these two voting rights bills fail, our democracy will suffer and may never recover. We are one or two elections away from a constitutional crisis where Republican anti-majoritarian efforts could create irrevocable damage. The time is now for Democrats to save democracy. There is no time left to waste.