WASHINGTON (CN) — With less than a year before voters return to the ballot box for the 2022 midterms, Democrats are scrambling to revive legislation aimed at expanding voting rights that has stalled out in the Senate, unable to overcome filibusters imposed by Republicans who are eager to protect state restrictions on when and how people can vote.
When the tightly gridlocked chamber reconvenes in January, the most prominent in a narrow field of options for Democrats struggling to expand of voting rights protections involves going nuclear — uniting all 50 members of their party to carve out an exception to the filibuster.
But experts say the chances of the party reigning in its moderates to unite behind the goal of scrapping the filibuster look slim, and the filibuster is likely to remain intact until the next time Democrats have control of the Senate. When that will happen is an open question, as some analysts predict an inability to act on protecting voting rights, a key pillar of the Democratic agenda, will jeopardize the party's future.
Democratic lawmakers have attempted to pass several bills in recent months to make it easier for Americans to vote and to protect the right to vote from infringement by states, but multiple bills have passed the House this year only to be tanked by the filibuster in the Senate — a process that allows any lawmaker to stall out legislation in the upper chamber and requires 60 votes to resume consideration of legislation, a difficult threshold to reach in a strictly divided 50-50 Senate.
In October, Republican senators used the filibuster to block passage of the Freedom to Vote Act, legislation that would have made Election Day a national holiday, created standards for early and mail-in voting in all states, and banned partisan gerrymandering.
In November, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which set out to reinstate a part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, was filibustered in the Senate. Named for the late lawmaker and civil rights leader, the bill would have allowed the Justice Department to review changes to election laws in states with a history of racial discrimination.
Democrats' eagerness to pass legislation focused on voting rights comes as Republican governors and state legislatures across the country continue to impose limitations on voting hours and restrict methods such as mail-in and early voting that make the process more accessible.
"When we look at the 2020 presidential election, we saw unprecedented attempts by the Republican Party to limit voting rights and also to pass legislation to limit voting rights. This legislation is particularly targeted at African-American communities, low-income communities and communities of color," said Emmitt Riley, associate professor of political science and Africana studies at DePauw University.
The filibuster originated as a way to force consensus among lawmakers, but it has also historically been used to block civil rights expansions. Now the filibuster is used regularly and often means the end of legislation, not the start of bipartisan cooperation.
"In the 1960s, those racist filibusters standing against civil rights and voting rights were broken with bipartisan majorities. We don’t see that anymore. There is no bipartisan consensus on making it easier for people to vote and it’s terrible. I wish that wasn’t the case but that’s where we are as a country, as a Senate," said Carlos Algara, assistant professor of political science at Claremont Graduate University.
The partisan tension over voting rights shows a growing ideological divide between the two parties, a schism that continues to grow, according to Algara.
"Now, everything is polarized. The Democrats want to make it easier, frankly, for people to vote and the Republicans don’t. It’s a little bit of a paradox because there’s no support for the notion that Democrats do better in high turnout elections," Algara said.