US Senate Republicans block Democrats' voting rights bill

Third time a US voting rights bill failed to pass this year in Washington

Protesters at a voting rights demonstration outside the White House. Reuters
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A bill aimed at thwarting restrictive new voting laws enacted in Republican-led states failed to advance in the US Senate on Wednesday, as Republican senators blocked a Democratic effort to begin debating the measure.

It was the third time this year Senate Democrats tried to advance a voting rights bill in reaction to new state balloting restrictions that were fuelled by Donald Trump's false claims of a stolen election.

Enough of the chamber's 50 Republicans had voted to block the measure from advancing, a move that could bring new pressure on Democrats to change the Senate's “filibuster” rule that requires a supermajority of 60 votes to pass most legislation.

Angus King, an independent senator who aligns with Democrats, told reporters that if Republicans again block the bill, “we would either have to figure out a rule change or we have to try to have discussions towards a compromise solution".

Many Democrats have been calling for a scaling back or elimination of the filibuster to make it easier to pass President Joe Biden's agenda over the objections of top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell.

Mr Biden, himself a veteran of the Senate, has voiced objections to doing so — although he suggested he was open to considering it during the recent showdown over increasing the debt ceiling.

There are several reform ideas percolating that could stop short of a full ban on legislative filibusters. Those could include carving out an exemption for the voting rights bill or limiting the number of filibusters against a bill.

But with no sign of Republicans willing to compromise, Mr King told reporters on Tuesday that Democrats' deliberations on next steps “cannot go on for months and months … it's got to happen in this calendar year”, so that states have enough time to prepare for any election law changes before the November 2022 midterm congressional elections.

At least 18 states have enacted 30 laws restricting voting access this year, the Brennan Centre for Justice at the New York University School of Law reported, following false claims by Mr Trump that he lost the 2020 election to Mr Biden because of widespread voting fraud.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have denounced the measures as partisan power grabs that will make it harder for black and Hispanic voters — important voting blocs for Democrats — to cast ballots.

“No honest observer can look at the way the states have changed election laws this year and pretend that there's nothing malicious afoot,” Mr Schumer said in a Tuesday floor speech.

Mr McConnell predicted that none of the senators in his caucus would support opening a debate on the Democrats' voting rights bill.

“What our Democratic friends have been wanting to do forever is to have the federal government take over how elections are conducted all over America. There's no basis for that whatsoever,” Mr McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.

Since leaving office, Mr Trump has continued to repeat his baseless election fraud allegations. Multiple courts, state election officials and members of Mr Trump's own administration rejected his claims.

The bill voted on Wednesday was scaled back from the prior version blocked by Republicans. It was going to set broad standards for how states conduct elections, including ensuring all qualified voters can request mail-in ballots.

It also aimed to expand voter turnout by making Election Day a federal holiday and outlaw partisan drawing of congressional districts, known as “gerrymandering”, that both parties have engaged in for decades.

Updated: October 20, 2021, 8:37 PM