By Choice and Circumstance, Democrats Put Voting Rights on the Ballot

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The For the People Act, the Democratic voting rights bill that President Biden urged Congress to pass in a major speech in Philadelphia this afternoon, was first introduced in January 2019. It was a simpler time: Few people outside Georgia had heard of Brad Raffensperger, Jan. 6 was just another date on the calendar, and the notion that large numbers of Republicans would join Donald J. Trump in baselessly denying his election loss seemed unlikely.

“Some things in America should be simple and straightforward,” Mr. Biden said in the speech, calling the bill “a national imperative.” He added, “Perhaps the most important of those things, the most fundamental of those things, is the right to vote: the right to vote freely, the right to vote fairly and the right to have your vote counted.”

The bill, also known as H.R. 1 or S. 1 (the names are symbolic of its priority for Democrats), addresses concerns that were top of mind for Democrats before the 2020 election, such as banning partisan gerrymandering, making voting easier and enforcing greater transparency on many political donations. Mr. Biden also called for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would reinstate elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.

However, even many commentators who have expressed concerns about the integrity of future elections have criticized the push for the For the People Act as fighting the last war. (Most Republicans have dismissed the bill as a partisan wish list.) These critics, who include The Times’s Nate Cohn, argue that the bill does little to defang the graver threat that elections might be overturned by partisan lawmakers, a possibility that state-level Republicans have pushed toward reality in electorally critical states like Georgia and Arizona.

“There are really two different issues going on,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, who supports the For the People Act. “One is the commonly understood concern about voting suppression. The other, which is really new on the horizon since the 2020 election, is this danger of election subversion: The idea that election officials can manipulate election outcomes so that the winner of the election is not actually declared the winner.”

For Democrats, the For the People Act has the additional drawback of being virtually certain not to pass anytime soon. Progressive activists had hoped the bill’s high-minded commitments might be the thing that persuaded moderate Democratic senators like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to eliminate the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote supermajority for many bills to pass the Senate. Getting rid of that hurdle, the thinking went, would then enable Democrats to pass the law with their 50 votes in the Senate (and with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie).

Instead, Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema have vowed to retain the filibuster. On top of that, the bill doesn’t even have 50 votes: Mr. Manchin opposes it, and has instead offered his own compromise, which Republicans have dismissed.

Yet even amid the Covid-19 vaccination drive, a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a second huge budget bill, Democrats have continued to keep voting rights at the center of their messaging, most recently in the speech today.

One reason, Dr. Hasen pointed out, is that even if this appears to be an inopportune moment for Democrats, it is still better than any other foreseeable time. After all, Democrats hold the presidency, the Senate and the House. The 2022 midterm elections could well do away with that, as the Democrats’ control of Congress is extremely slight and presidents’ parties nearly always sustain a backlash in midterm elections. Dramatic developments, such as Texas Democratic lawmakers’ fleeing the state on Monday night to prevent the passage of a major bill that would restrict voting, underscore that sense of urgency.

Mr. Biden’s speech was meant partly as a message to civil rights activists that he hears and appreciates their concerns. Over the weekend, James E. Clyburn, the powerful Democratic congressman from South Carolina whose endorsement last year was critical to Mr. Biden’s securing the presidential nomination, called on the president to support removing the filibuster for legislation tied to electoral reforms.

But another reason for Mr. Biden’s big push is the compelling nature of the issue itself. Mr. Biden called for a nonpartisan, nonpolitical response to what he characterized as Republican voter suppression efforts. He summoned past moments that most Americans accept as welcome elements of progress, including the country’s founding, Reconstruction, the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement.

“This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “It’s literally about who we are as Americans.”

Mr. Biden used forceful rhetoric — he asked opponents of expanding voting rights if they had no shame — but he did not propose the structural reform that supporters of the For the People Act say is essential. But if Mr. Biden persuades voters, then at the margins it may improve the atmosphere for Democrats in states where Republicans control part or all of government — like Georgia and Arizona, and also Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New Hampshire, where Senate races in 2022 (and presidential ones in 2024) are expected to be close.

It may also prove to be smart politics. The elements of the For the People Act are popular, according to a Data for Progress poll.

“Voting has become like climate change or immigration or abortion: a topic within the election itself,” Dr. Hasen said. “It’s something that Democrats and Republicans can’t ignore.”

Which is to say, it is another issue on which Democrats can run. Whether you consider the For the People Act a cynical attempt to help Democrats or an enlightened amelioration of American democracy (which might help Democrats, at least a little), in absence of its passage, the option Democrats are left with is to continue to win elections.

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