US Democrats press doomed voting rights reform

Senate to vote on Wednesday evening or face possible filibuster challenge

Activists demonstrate for voting rights outside the White House in Washington as the Senate prepares to vote. AFP

On Wednesday, the US Senate is set to vote on a seemingly futile push to shore up voting rights in response to a series of Republican-led states tightening access to the ballot box.

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House of Representatives last week but are all but guaranteed to fail in the upper chamber, with Republicans united in opposition to what they frame as a partisan power grab.

But Democrats say the package is vital to protect democracy after conservative states spent the last year leveraging former president Donald Trump's false claims of widespread election fraud to introduce a series of restrictive new voting regulations.

“The eyes of history are upon us … Win, lose or draw, we are going to vote, especially when the issue relates to the beating heart of our democracy,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech on the floor.

The legislation would guarantee the right to mail-in voting, ballot drop boxes and at least two weeks of early voting — and making Election Day a national holiday.

It also addresses “gerrymandering” — the partisan trick of redrawing congressional districts in the ruling party's favour — and would require states with a history of voter discrimination to have clearance before changing election laws.

Republicans say restrictions such as limiting mail-in voting and insisting on voter identification are simply common sense.

“This is about one party wanting the power to unilaterally rewrite the rule book of American elections,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday.

Democrats hold a technical majority in the evenly split Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to act as a tiebreaker on 50-50 votes.

With no Republicans likely to break ranks, Democrats will be unable to overcome the so-called “filibuster” — the 60-vote threshold required to move forward with legislation in the Senate.

After the vote fails, Mr Schumer will then try to lower the bar to break filibusters specifically for voting rights, a play known as the “nuclear option".

Mr Schumer has proposed reinstating the “talking filibuster”, forcing Republicans to speak on the floor to sustain their opposition, and introducing a limited carve-out exemption from the 60-vote threshold.

But this manoeuvre is also likely to fall short, as moderate Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have indicated they will side with Republicans to vote no.

With the push for broad voting rights reform on track to come up short, Democrats have the option of pursuing a narrower, cross-party effort to safeguard elections.

This would include funding to help protect election officials from threats and tightening the process Congress uses to certify presidential elections every four years.

Updated: January 19, 2022, 7:16 PM