Republicans are breaking U.S. democracy using the filibuster

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U.S. Senate. Image credit: Sebastian Vital/Flickr

Majority rule in the United States, expressed through our scattershot state-by-state, county-by-county election systems, appears to have survived four years of president Donald Trump. Actual power, however, resides in an entrenched, overwhelmingly white Republican minority. True, the Democratic Party, through massive grassroots voter mobilization, took the White House and the Senate, and retains its slim majority in the House of Representatives. Despite that, Senate Republicans, wielding the filibuster, a vestige of the slavery era, still hold the power to veto almost all federal legislation.

Case in point is H.R.1, the For the People Act of 2021, passed by the House on Wednesday night as Congressmembers scrambled to finish business and leave Washington early due to reported threats of potential violence from Trump-supporting white-supremacist adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory. H.R.1 has been described as the most sweeping pro-democracy bill in decades, improving voter registration and access to voting, ending partisan and racial gerrymandering, forcing the disclosure of dark money donors, increasing public funding for candidates, and imposing strict ethical and reporting standards on members of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. You'd think a pro-democracy bill would be popular in the world's oldest democracy. Yet not one Republican voted for it. And unless all 50 Senate Democrats unite to end the filibuster, which they could do with a simple majority vote, H.R.1 and many more bills to come will die at the hands of the Republican Senate minority.

The late conservative activist Paul Weyrich, cofounder of The Heritage Foundation, laid out the Republican playbook in 1980: "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people…our leverage in the elections goes up as the voting populace goes down." Republican strategy relies on voter suppression.

Republican-controlled state legislatures have launched an unprecedented assault on voting rights, attempting to reverse advances in the franchise, hard-won over the last century and half. More than 250 bills have been forwarded to limit voter access.

The Supreme Court, now packed with Republicans, is expected to put its partisan finger on the scale of democracy as well, gutting what remains of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, in an Arizona case heard this week. Channeling Weyrich while arguing against a lower court's rejection of Arizona voter suppression tactics before the Supreme Court, the lawyer for the Arizona GOP candidly stated, "it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game."

The Georgia Assembly passed HB531 this week, along strict party lines. The bill was described as "textbook voter suppression" by Democratic Georgia Assemblymember Jasmine Clark. HB531 includes provisions that require strict photo identification to obtain an absentee ballot; would limit the number of ballot drop boxes, and require the boxes to be kept indoors, limiting access to them; would severely curtail early voting and, perhaps most importantly, would reduce or eliminate early voting on Sundays, a day on which African Americans have traditionally voted after church in great numbers, in what is known as "Souls to the Polls."

"This is really a new form of Jim Crow," Ari Berman, author and reporter for Mother Jones, said on the Democracy Now! news hour. "They are targeting the voting methods that were used the most by Black voters that led to record turnout, that helped flip Georgia blue and elect two Democratic senators."

Berman continued:

"All across the country, Republicans are breaking democracy....They are pushing extreme gerrymandering to try to keep power in the states and to try to take back the House in 2022. They are using the filibuster, so that 41 GOP senators, representing just 21 per cent of the country, can block everything from a $15 minimum wage to legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act."

Republicans aren't alone in restricting votes of people of colour, though. Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of St. Louis, a Black Lives Matter activist and formerly unhoused single mother, submitted an amendment to H.R.1 to enfranchise those imprisoned with felony convictions. Currently only Vermont, Maine and the District of Columbia allow prisoners to vote. Democrat Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, a member of the Squad, proposed lowering the voting age to 16. Both amendments submitted by these progressive African American women would have significantly increased voter enfranchisement in communities of colour. Both amendments failed because Democrats joined Republicans to vote them down.

Grassroots mobilization won the Democrats this narrow window in which to pass progressive legislation, from protecting and expanding the right to vote, to providing universal healthcare and a living wage. Pressure is needed now more than ever, to ensure that minority rule, enforced with the slave-era filibuster, does not stand.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image credit: Sebastian Vital/Flickr

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