These are dangerous days for our democracy. The surviving family of Martin Luther King Jr. recognizes that. Several members of the King family have urged the public not to celebrate his legacy if Congress does not pass renewed national voting rights protections by Monday — the holiday bearing Dr. King’s namesake. As Americans, we collectively bear a mark of shame that our leaders in Washington could not surface from the mire of partisan sclerosis to meet this deadline.
Within one of our two major parties, an ascendant radical wing has shown a willingness to put a hallmark of democracy — free, fair and open elections — on the chopping block for the sake of political advantage. That was on display in horrifying clarity on Jan. 6, 2021, when the peaceful transfer of power was threatened by a defeated president and the violent mob he provoked. But it also continues quietly but insidiously in statehouses across the country passing laws to make voting needlessly onerous.
While an alarming amount of Republican-majority state legislatures move quickly to chisel at the sacred pillar of ballot-box access, the federal legislature has been slow to shore up voting rights at risk for millions across America. To be sure, much of this is due to the paralyzing effect of the filibuster in a Senate with a razor-thin Democratic majority that requires a supermajority for anything to pass. Plenty of reasonable and responsible voting rights legislation has been offered up, from the House-passed John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to the Freedom to Vote Act. All of it has hit a brick wall in a Senate where the broad and reckless application of the filibuster makes obstructionist minority rule the norm.
Apologists for this obstructionism will wax poetic about the need to retain the filibuster to ostensibly make the Senate more deliberative and bipartisan. Those who actually care about bipartisanship should note that the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act accrued a majority of votes in favor including Republican Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska. The need for a supermajority of 60 votes, however, does not reward that effort to cross the aisle but effectively punishes it. Further, it’s difficult to maintain that the Senate is a particularly deliberative institution after it jammed through a Supreme Court nominee on the eve of a presidential election when it happened to be convenient for Republicans.
In reality, the filibuster is largely functioning as it always has historically: an antidemocratic wedge that allows a minority of senators representing an even smaller minority of citizens to hamstring necessary progress. That’s how it helped protect slavery in the 19th century and Jim Crow in the 20th century. Given the disproportionate effects on Black and Latino voters, the long shadow of vicious racism hangs over the dereliction of protecting voting rights facilitated by the filibuster, too. President Joe Biden’s plea to change Senate rules in order to loosen the filibuster’s death grip on critical voting rights legislation is a reasonable move made necessary by Republican leadership’s unreasonable reliance on this stalling tactic as our democracy desperately needs defending.
The deeper issue obscured by this petty politicking, though, is the fact that this is perceived as a partisan issue at all. We might be polarized to a historic degree, but we are truly lost if we allow politicians to distort the common-sense provisions of these stymied voting rights bills into Democrat or Republican talking points. Why are protections for poll workers, modernizing voter registration and preventing election interference, ballot tampering and gerrymandering party-line issues? The only answer is that they aren’t — or at least they shouldn’t be in a healthy democracy.
That was a deep truth realized by Martin Luther King Jr. The movement he led was not a partisan one bound by allegiance to Democrats or Republicans. It was a call for all our leaders to equally extend and protect the rights critical to democracy and its participants — especially those purchased with blood and righteous struggle like the right to vote. Some Senate Republicans have signaled a willingness to rise above the partisan mire to prioritize these critical rights and the integrity of our elections. Now is the time to rise to that occasion and come to the legislating table to get it done. Our democracy depends on it.