“If [Joe] Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights.” That’s what House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said in March 2021. The two senators didn’t listen. The filibuster stayed. Voting rights legislation didn’t pass.
And next year, Manchin and Sinema will still enjoy being in the majority.
For the last several years, Democrats have been consumed by panic about voter suppression, and not without reason. The conservative Supreme Court rolled back the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Republican governors and state legislatures kept passing laws designed to make it harder to vote, mostly through voter identification requirements. Some loose-lipped Republicans said their intent was to make it harder for Democrats to win.
Nevertheless, Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, after the first wave of voter identification laws. More recently, Democrats won the House in 2018, then the presidency and Senate in 2020.
The election results were a strong signal that the narratives of both Democrats and Republicans were wrong. As I wrote in early 2021, strict voter identification laws have been shown in academic research to have no significant impact on turnout and registration. At the same time, measures to expand the franchise, such as early voting and vote-by-mail, do not inherently tip the scales to Democrats. For example, in 2020, when the share of mail ballots jumped from the prior presidential election from 24% to 44%, Republicans gained 13 House seats. Florida is a pioneer in early voting, yet it keeps getting redder and redder, as evidenced by Republican Ron DeSantis’ blowout gubernatorial reelection last week. Soon after Virginia Democrats enacted some of the most liberal voting rights laws in the country, Virginians elected Republican Glenn Youngkin to be their governor.
After 2020 many Democrats, despite their recent victories, convinced themselves they still faced an existential crisis, and wouldn’t be able to win elections ever again without an expansive federal voting rights act. The first House bill introduced by the Democratic majority, two weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration, was a sweeping election reform measure called the For the People Act. Republicans in Georgia, after watching Democrats paint their state blue, convinced themselves that they faced an existential crisis, and in March 2021 passed SB202, a law curtailing the early vote period, limiting drop box access and stiffening the voter ID requirement.
The Georgia law sent Democrats into a hysteria, fueling demands to create an exception to the filibuster in order to pass voting rights laws. When Sens. Manchin and Sinema wouldn’t oblige, the rage among Democrats was palpable. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer held a doomed floor vote in January 2022, a last-ditch attempt to pressure the holdouts. When it didn’t work, the Arizona Democratic Party censured Sinema, and the abortion rights group EMILY’s List revoked its endorsement of her.
After a year of intense focus on voting rights, culminating in embarrassing failure on the Senate floor, an interesting thing happened: Democrats moved on. The rest of 2022 was spent striking compromises on a wide range of domestic policy goals. The voting rights bill debacle was shoved down the memory hole.
Moreover, Democrats managed to move on without causing a rupture with its progressive base. Enough policy goals were achieved through legislation or executive order to maintain party unity. Further spurring Democratic turnout was the exhortation made by Biden and former president Barack Obama in the final days of the midterm campaign: “Democracy is on the ballot.” They starkly warned of the consequences if Trump loyalists who peddle election conspiracies ended up in control of our elections. Instead of telling Democratic voters they won’t be able to vote, they told Democrats they had to vote.
Not only did that call resonate, but the response from voters further disproved the notion that Democrats couldn’t win under our existing voting laws. Even in Georgia, under the controversial SB202, the record for early votes was shattered, and the percentage of early votes cast by African Americans was slightly higher than in November 2020. While the Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams fell far short of defeating the Republican incumbent, the incumbent Democratic senator Raphael Warnock won a plurality of votes against Republican Herschel Walker. According to the exit poll, Warnock’s achievement was powered by overwhelming support from African American voters, suggesting that African Americans were not suppressed and disenfranchised.
Get-out-the-vote operations in Georgia have complained that the new law made their work more difficult, but not impossible. One leader of the Faith Works coalition told Georgia Public Broadcasting: “The fact is we've done our work and Blacks are resilient people. The more you tell us what we can’t do, the more determined we become to do it.”
It’s certainly fair to argue that SB202 and other restrictive voting laws create needless obstacles and that their designers had bad intentions. But the proof of the pudding is in the voting. Turnout nationwide is estimated to be the second highest for a midterm election since 1968. Turnout for voters under 30 is the second highest since at least 1994. Voter suppression tools in the modern era are weak and turnout machines are strong.
Republicans will start to get the message that trying to restrict the vote is a losing game. Conservative activist Charlie Kirk, after news outlets projected Democrats would retain their Senate majority, said on Fox News, “We are now in the era of vote-by-mail. I don't like it. A lot of people don't like it. But, tough. We got to wake up and we got to get good at it." That’s the right attitude.
Perhaps now that the narratives of both parties have been exploded yet again, the two parties will be able to agree on some compromise election reform legislation, so we can end the corrosive conspiracies that erode faith in our democratic institutions.