Voting rights and the filibuster

Anthony Lopez, Investigative News Editor

When the John Lewis Voting Rights Act was struck down on the Senate floor, the proponents of its passage were rejected the opportunity to reclaim some of the voting rights that have slowly but assuredly, eroded in the past several years. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of legislation that rejected racial discrimination within voting; yet in the decades since and as a result of cases like Shelby County v. Holder, several of its sections have been rendered inert, allowing for states to institute their own restrictive voting bills without the need for a preliminary check by the federal government. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act was seen as a remedy to this bitter backsliding of a sacred right, one that had been fiercely fought for on the streets of America and was now being threatened by modern policies.

Of course, this bill was never going to be passed by the Senate. Even when it was written, or when it was marginally passed within the House of Representatives, there was little hope that this path would lead to a victory. The Senate, unlike the House, is currently bound by more rigors, the most egregious being the filibuster. This tactic, not an original part of the U.S. Constitution but rather a method introduced decades later, serves as nothing more than an affront to democracy, granting greater-than-deserved power to a minority by preventing most legislation from being passed if it fails to reach a 60 vote supermajority. 

The filibusters of old were perceived as acts of defiance against potentially corrupt lawmaking, forcing Senators to stay on the house floor for as long as their body would grant them the will to do so.

Yet a two-track system introduced in the 1970s that would have, ironically enough, streamlined the Senate by accommodating more bills to be debated over, only granted the filibuster more power. Since the modern interpretation of the filibuster has now become synonymous with an opportunity to lambast the majority’s efforts and denounce sought-after legislation, minority members of the modern era have no need to extend their debate on the Senate floor and delay a vote. They may simply declare their firm possession of 40 votes and sentence a bill to be dead on arrival.  

The Senate is an institution that already harbors deeply undemocratic components. The conundrum of disproportionate representation, wherein a sparsely populated state like Wyoming possesses an equal number of Senators to a densely populated one like California, is just one example. The presence of the filibuster is but an additional mark against an institution that demands to break away from tradition in order to truly progress the country.

The arguments in favor of the filibuster are quite clear: no party wishes to relent the hold they may have on the Senate even when not in the majority; it is a form of power and control. Supporters would state that whenever the party they oppose holds the majority in the Senate, there will be no end to the legislation passed within it. The country will regress at an alarming rate, depending on who you fear will hold control in the chamber.

It is a curious fear, however, one directly antithetical to the very democracy that the United States has purportedly served as the bastion for. In theory, if the American populace has voted in favor of a Republican or Democrat majority, then so be it; regardless of who is in control, that should never be the reason why we simply forgo the avenues of democracy.

Granted, this attitude can only be justified so long as the means of voting are fair rather than tampered with by legislation that threatens to undermine the abilities of the people. Under restrictive participation in elections, appointed lawmakers may not be truly representative of the will of the people. Unfortunately, recent years have proven that fear to not be unfounded. 

When Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was struck down in 2013, states immediately went to work establishing new stipulations that would make participating in elections a greater challenge. Millions of voters were purged from voter rolls, an amount greater than if the section had remained. Voter ID laws were passed in several states such as Texas, as well as a series of other legislations that would invariably impact minority groups that are less likely to possess photo IDs. This legislation also affected early and absentee voting, key points of accessibility for voters that may not have the time, transportation, or work flexibility to make it to the polls on election day, but still constitute an essential part of representation for those around the country.

These policies, and arguably much of the conversation concerning voting rights, are centered around a false reality: that voting as a right is being threatened by systemic illegality. The only manner, the fearful will say, in which the United States can recover from this debilitating plight is by raising the standard by which people can vote, conveniently establishing significant barriers that prevent certain demographics from participating in democracy. 

In essence, a harmful solution has been created for a manufactured problem. Voting in the modern era of American elections has been historically safe; eliminating several means of accessing a ballot or raising the standard to reach one serves none but the legislators looking to secure a future for their party.

Voting is an essential right, slowly being eroded by the unwavering efforts of lawmakers fervent in their desires to secure victory within the limits of the law. Legislation like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act might have assuaged a growing concern, but critical policies will rarely be able to pass with the filibuster firmly entrenched in the Senate’s core. The tactic is a malignancy within the chamber that demands to be removed; it serves no purpose but to delay potentially meaningful progress and to grant undeserved strength to minority rule. 

I will not disagree that there is a warranted concern over the methods in which policymakers rewrite districts and hinder electoral participation. But acts to secure voting rights, ones passed through simple majorities rather than ludicrous supermajorities, could be the indelible step forward towards true democracy. Lawmakers have expressed concern that theoretical reversals in policy in the years after the removal of a filibuster will erode the trust in government. Yet they should be far more worried about the current perception of the government, wherein the citizenry believes that lawmaking has remained largely stagnant and reluctant to advance our country. That perception is not wholly wrong. 

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