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The effort last night by the Senate Democrat majority to move ahead two federal voting rights bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, ended in failure. The Republican minority and two Democrat Senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, chose to vote against allowing the bills to even be debated on the floor of the Senate.

The vote, which was to have allowed an exception to the Senate’s arcane filibuster 60-vote threshold to allow debate of the bills on the floor of the Senate, was not unexpected. All Senate Republicans voted against it as a bloc. Sinema and Manchin had been signaling for weeks that they would not vote to approve a carveout of the Senate’s filibuster rules to allow debate on the federal voting rights bills considered crucial by both Democrats and Constitutional scholars in preserving the rights of citizens to vote. They took this stance even though both say they support the actual voting rights bills.

Senator Michael Bennet (D, Colorado), who earlier spoke on the Senate floor urging swift action on voting rights, later issued a statement on Senate Republicans’ obstruction of voting rights legislation.

“Tonight the Senate failed to meet the moment. After a year that has seen partisan state legislators introduce more than 500 bills making it harder to vote, Senate Republicans have blocked critically important legislation to protect our democracy. Tonight’s outcome is a profound disappointment, but progress in our history has never come in a straight line. Until every American can vote as easily and securely as we do in Colorado, we have more work to do.”

With hundreds of voter restriction bills being introduced across at least 23 states, and restrictive voting rights bills already passed in at least 14 states, the election landscape across this country is checkered with inconsistencies and inequity.

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet

In Bennet’s comments on the Senate floor, he pointed out that a new voter restriction law in Texas limits Houston, its largest city (and the sixth-most populous city in North America) to just one ballot drop location for a 2020 population of 2,304,580. In Colorado, an all-mail-ballot state, he pointed out that Denver alone (a city of more than 770,000) has more than 40 ballot drop box locations.

Here in Chaffee County, voters can drop ballots at the County Annex Building in Buena Vista, at the County Administration Building in Salida, and during the final weeks of an election, often other voting locations have been opened in the Salida Scout Hut, and at the Chaffee County Fairgrounds.

That U.S. Senators have voted 160 times to ignore their own rule appears not to have fazed those who voted against even allowing debate, in the chamber known as the world’s premier deliberative body. Just in the past four years of the Trump administration, Republicans who held a senate majority created filibuster exceptions, instead allowing only simple majority votes;  to allow approval of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, to allow approval of his cabinet picks, and then again to allow for approval of his federal circuit court nominations.

A short history of the Senate filibuster reveals that its initial creation was an accident and that it further perpetuates the built-in inequity within the Senate of the two representatives per state rule; which gives over-representation to states such as Wyoming with small populations.

Wyoming’s entire population is only 578,759. They have two Senators. But their state population is 25 percent less than the city of Denver’s popular of nearly 780,000. Wyoming’s population is one-tenth the size of Colorado’s population of 5,759 million. Yet Colorado has two Senators representing us in Congress. Is this equal representation?

A few facts about the mysterious (to the rest of us) filibuster;

  • Contrary to myth, the filibuster is NOT contained in the Constitution.
  • The filibuster as a legislative tool was accidentally created in 1806, when the Senate, at the urging of Vice President Aaron Burr a year before, eliminated the “previous question” motion, a rarely used rule that allowed the Senate to vote to move on from an issue being debated.
  • Since 2009, the filibuster has been used to block the Senate from voting on any bills or nominations unless they have 60 votes.
    Gone are the days when a filibuster required a senator to come to the floor of the Senate, stand and verbally present opposition to a proposed bill. The filibuster can now be created simply by declaring one, but it doesn’t even have to be done in person; a senator can call in from a beach in Florida and declare a filibuster, which seems — well — rather un-American.
  • According to the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Ballin (1892), Senate rules, including the filibuster — can be changed by a simple majority vote. Sounds clear, right? Nevertheless, under current Senate “rules”, even a rule change could itself be filibustered, requiring two-thirds of senators who are present and voting to end debate; thus allowing the minority to overrule the majority.

This situation makes it understandable that much of the American public is frustrated with this government process. But the vote made clear to the people of the United States which of their elected officials stand for voting rights, and which appear to seek to limit voting access; a stance that could be considered important to all voters, not just minority voters.

The question could be asked: given their stance against voting rights, and the obvious efforts at local and state levels to limit voting rights, while questioning election integrity — what is it that Republicans stand for if they won’t support even a debate about voting rights?

Featured image; the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. Photo by Jan Wondra.