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Democrats’ voting rights debacle

Did the party waste a year on a doomed Senate push? Or was this their best chance?

Protestors are detained by US Capitol Police after rallying for voting rights legislation on the Senate steps at the Capitol on January 18.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Sometimes there is no plan.

Democrats’ big voting rights push is headed for a brick wall in the Senate — again. To get their bill past the filibuster, they need all 50 Senate Democrats to support changing the chamber’s rules. And Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) still refuse to do so.

With failure imminent, finger-pointing and second-guessing about Democrats’ voting rights strategy has become rampant. “Has there ever been a legislative campaign this dumb, doomed and disastrous from the beginning?” one Democratic campaign professional griped to me, speaking anonymously to more freely criticize his party’s strategy.

It’s become clear that the party never had a plausible plan for success on voting rights. Congressional leaders, activists, and outside groups have mostly been in lockstep trying to unite Democrats around a sweeping legislative package, then charging full steam ahead into a filibuster. The hope was, apparently, that persuasion or pressure would spur Manchin and Sinema to abolish or weaken the filibuster, even though they’d repeatedly vowed they wouldn’t.

All along, some Democrats have been quietly skeptical on both tactical and substantive grounds, as I wrote last year. They argued that the likely impact of the bills for “saving democracy” was exaggerated, and that their chances of success were far lower than leaders were admitting. An adviser to a prominent Democratic donor worried that discussions on the topic were becoming “exercises in unreality,” per an email obtained by Politico.

President Biden’s White House at times seemed to side with the skeptics: He kept his distance from the voting rights push through much of 2021, giving the occasional speech or statement, but not making it a top priority compared to the Build Back Better Act, which seemed to have a greater chance of success. But activists intensely criticized Biden for his inaction, and then Build Back Better stalled, so he finally got engaged in the voting push this month — to no effect on Manchin or Sinema.

Barring a startling turnaround, Democrats will head into the midterms having failed to pass the bills they touted as so urgently necessary. It’s a big mess. Of course, the failure of one strategy does not mean there was an obviously better option. Still, it’s natural to ask whether there were some roads not taken — and whether the alliance of congressional leaders and outside groups steering this effort has steered into a ditch.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at a news conference following the Senate Democrats caucus meeting on voting rights and the filibuster on Tuesday, January 18.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

How Democrats got here

The strangeness began early last year. Donald Trump had just made an unprecedented effort to overturn the presidential election results, resulting in chaos and violence at the Capitol on January 6. Then Republican-led state legislatures started moving toward passing restrictions on voting. The moment, it seemed, demanded a response.

So Democratic congressional leaders put forward a bill: the For the People Act. It was a “mega-bill” containing dozens of proposals that good government reformers had supported for years, on topics ranging from voting accessibility standards to redistricting reform to small donor campaign financing. There was no hope of getting any Republican support for this bill, as it was crafted as a kind of a Democratic wish list and, in its initial version, didn’t really address Trump’s schemes to steal the election at all.

Then there was the problem of passing it — 60 votes would be required to get it past the Senate filibuster. That could be circumvented if Democrats rammed through a rules change with just a majority. But in January 2021, Manchin and Sinema both publicly pledged to keep the filibuster intact.

Still, Democratic congressional leaders and their allies pressed onward with an apparent two-part plan: first, brand the bill as crucial to saving democracy, and second, pressure or persuade Manchin, Sinema, and other moderates to change Senate rules, so the bill could pass.

Some of the details have changed in the ensuing year. The For the People Act was replaced by a two-bill combo, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Certain provisions were dropped and others, including some related to election subversion, were added. But the basic strategy has remained the same: push a big sweeping legislative package overhauling many aspects of elections and voting with no Republican support, and hope Manchin and Sinema covert to the cause of filibuster reform.

Spoiler: They haven’t.

Why did the party go down this path? The Democratic campaign professional told me he’s observed a “lawyer vs. practitioner dichotomy.” He believes the big bill strategy was crafted by lawyers in the party and at allied nonprofit groups, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, who had grand ambitions of overhauling the law, but who lacked campaign professionals’ expertise about which policy changes are most likely to impact election outcomes and legislators’ savvy about how to actually get a bill through Congress.

In this interpretation of events, those lawyers caught the ear of influential donors and donor-funded activist groups. To keep these constituencies happy, congressional leaders embraced the lawyers’ strategy to push these sweeping mega-bills — and the White House, after some initial reluctance, followed. (Teddy Schleifer reported on the donors behind the voting rights effort at Puck News.)

Another circulating theory is that this whole effort has been a bit of a sham, or at least a performance, from Democratic leaders’ perspective. In this interpretation, top Democrats knew all along they’d never be able to pass anything because of the filibuster. So they put together a “message bill” aimed at making their interest groups and certain key donors happy, but which they never thought or intended would actually become law. The goal has been to prove to activists and the base that they are “fighting” for the cause of voting rights, even though they knew they would lose.

Sen. Joe Manchin walks to an elevator en route to a Senate democratic caucus meeting on voting rights and the filibuster on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, January 18.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Was there another option?

All this might come off as too-savvy second-guessing. A more generous interpretation is that Democratic leaders and advocates knew the strategy’s odds of success were slim, but they thought it was worth a shot anyway, and they didn’t think any alternative strategies would be likelier to produce policy changes that would protect democracy.

“It’s an important moment that the U.S. Senate is debating how to protect voting rights and fair elections at a time when our democracy is under attack from Donald Trump’s Big Lie and those who would abet it,” Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, said in a statement. “We’re proud to be part of an extraordinary movement of racial justice, democracy, religious, labor, and other groups in this fight. It’s a broad democracy movement our country has long needed.” Supporters of the effort also argue that they have plenty of campaign professionals and experts who agree with them on the importance of fighting voter suppression restrictions.

But there can be costs to failure. For one, it may amount to wasting a year — Manchin and Sinema’s support for the filibuster has been clear since January 2021, after all. Former Obama White House aide Dan Pfeiffer argued in a recent Substack that insiders privately knew failure was likely, but publicly pretended otherwise, setting the stage for supporters’ disillusionment with Biden’s presidency overall. “Every Democrat — myself included — did a miserable job of managing expectations and leveling with our most loyal activists, volunteers, and donors,” Pfeiffer wrote.

Biden did initially try to manage expectations by prioritizing other issues first. But that’s led to another round of second-guessing from those who argue he should have gotten involved earlier. “When Biden fully entered the battle, the other warriors were already bloody, bruised and exhausted,” the New York Times’s Charles Blow writes.

Yet considering Manchin’s willingness to tank Build Back Better as well as the voting rights bills, it seems unlikely that earlier presidential pressure would have made him and Sinema bend. The president and progressives have no leverage over Manchin, who represents a deeply conservative state — indeed, they need him for everything they want to do.

Sinema is theoretically vulnerable to a primary from the left, but she certainly isn’t acting like she believes that, and that election wouldn’t be until 2024 anyway. For now, Biden is at their mercy, and continued pressure on them could well backfire and make them more recalcitrant on other issues.

Another question is whether, in going for broke trying to pass their dream bill, Democrats will have missed an opportunity to get less sweeping but still significant reforms enacted. Washington is abuzz with news that some Republican senators want to engage in talks about reforming the Electoral Count Act — the law Trump tried to use to get Congress and Vice President Pence to throw out Biden’s wins in key states. Yet leading Democrats like Schumer have so far voiced skepticism of those efforts.

Whether any GOP reform offer is worthwhile depends on the details, and it’s possible no deal will come together. But right now, the alternative appears to be getting no reforms at all.

The unpleasant reality for Democrats is that they’ll only be in a position to pass the agenda they say is necessary if they manage to win more elections. Yet their prospects for doing that in 2022 look bleak, considering Biden’s grim approval numbers. There’s still a chance to make the bipartisan deals they can now, and try to win more elections later. But the time for tilting at windmills is drawing to a close.