Last month, US President Joe Biden voiced his desire to do away with the filibuster rule in the Senate after his plans to push the Democrat Party’s Freedom to Vote and John Lewis Rights Advancement Acts were faced with Republican resistance.
The future of the electoral process has been called into question in the past year following a number of bills passed in Republican states to regulate voting systems. This follows a slew of claims made by former US President Donald Trump about the legitimacy of his loss in 2020 to Biden, accusing states of committing voter fraud. While these claims have been found to be widely unsubstantiated, policies passed in recent months show that Republican representatives have taken these allegations to be true. The Democrat Party’s attempt to end filibustering in the Senate in retaliation against Republican state bills passed to regulate voting processes is indicative of both parties’ attempts to override the democratic process to meet their ends.
On September 7, 2021, Texas’s Governor, Greg Abbott, signed Senate Bill 1 into existence. A 47-page comprehensive bill, SB1 was made with the intention of correcting processes in the voting system that Republicans say are sources of voter fraud. The bill bans counties from keeping voting centers open 24 hours and prohibits drive thru voting, which allows voters to fill out ballots from the inside of their cars. Drive-in voting was criticized because poll watchers were unable to monitor the ballots. Supporters of the bill see partisan poll watchers as holding the system accountable, while opponents see them as potential tools for intimidation, particularly against minority groups.
The policies brought up in Senate Bill 1 particularly target Harris County, which encompasses Houston. Harris County saw record turnouts in the 2020 election as Joe Biden supporters beat Donald Trump in that region by 13 points. Drive thru voting was credited with the rise in voter participation, particularly encouraging racial minorities to go vote, as 53% of participants in drive thru voting were minorities. The innovation was praised for being safe and convenient, and while it has come under scrutiny, no evidence of voter fraud was uncovered from these events.
So, why are Republicans so determined on passing reforms against a mass conspiracy of voter fraud that seems to be entirely fabricated? This can be answered by Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die . This book attributes the passing of legislation that subverts democracy under the guise of “cleaning up” the election process as a mechanism in consolidating authoritarian control. Limiting the convenience of voting, especially for minority groups, supporters of the bill could manipulate the outcomes of elections by influencing voter turnout. Machinations like these that intend to alienate certain groups to discourage them from voting come from actors that Ozan Varol calls “stealth authoritarians”. By restricting a voting process that befits certain communities, they raise the cost of voting for these individuals, influencing their likelihood to vote. After seeing record numbers of voter turnout last year against one of their party leaders, Republicans are going to be concerned about how new voting systems could affect their prospects of reelection. Passing these regulations with the pretense of maintaining the integrity of elections secures their positions in future elections.
Bills like SB1 have been passed by at least 18 other states in the past year since the 2020 presidential election, prompting backlash from members of the Democratic Party. In January 2022, they tried to pass the Freedom to Vote Act. This would enable automatic voter registration for all eligible voters, same day voter registration, online voter registration, protections against voter purges, and reinforced postelection security audits. Attached to the bottom of the act is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which gives the federal government pre approval over any changes of electoral procedures in states with a history of discrimination, a policy used during the Obama administration.
The voting act passed the House of Representatives earlier in the year, but has faced resistance in the Senate from a filibustering Republican party. On January 20, Biden went to Congress to persuade lawmakers to remove the rule that allows for filibusters so that he could pass legislation. The decision to nuke the rule was blocked by Democrat Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. They noted the importance of keeping the rule, which requires 60 members to end debate on topics and move to a vote. The filibuster has been a norm in the Senate and other legislative chambers for several decades. It has served as a means of blocking the majority from reaching an agreement without some form of consensus between both sides. It becomes a more fickle subject as our system becomes more polarized. But Biden’s attempts to nullify the rule are ridiculous. Biden has been supportive of the filibuster in the past, vocalising his support of it in 2019 when Trump tried to repeal the filibuster to get Congressional budget approval for the US-Mexico border, an action which was blocked by members of the Republican party. Now when it gets in the way of his party’s mission to extend the reach of the federal government, he criticises it. These are the frustrations of an executive struggling to meet a certain agenda, not a valid reason to do away with a norm that has provided a check on powers within our democracy.
This chain of events following the unseating of former President Trump highlights one of the many symptoms of extreme polarization in the US. As both countries jockey for control over electoral and legislative control, they try to overstep the boundaries of the democratic process. The Democratic Party must take a more careful and democratic approach to correcting policies if it wants to preserve voter rights. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, 77  Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 1673 (2015): 1700
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Penguin Books, 2019.
Ozan O, Varol. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100 , no. 1673 (2015).