There were two columns I wanted to write this week. One was about Senator Joe Manchin’s comments cracking the door open on filibuster reform. The filibuster “should be painful and we’ve made it more comfortable over the years,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Maybe it has to be more painful.” With those words — and, to be fair, a few more Delphic utterances, which I’ll get to shortly — Manchin reignited the possibility of filibuster reform and perhaps the restoration of the Senate.
The other was about the wave of new bills, proposals and laws across Republican-controlled states, restricting ballot access, making it harder to vote and undermining the fair administration of elections. In Georgia, SB241 would end no-excuse absentee voting, and HB531 would limit weekend voting. In Arizona, SB 1593 would shorten the early voting period and trash envelopes that weren’t postmarked at least five days before the election, and SB 1068 would give the highly partisan State Legislature more power over elections. The Brennan Center for Justice, which focuses on voting rights issues, calculated in mid-February that the number of bills introduced to restrict the right to vote in 2021 so far was seven times the size of the number that were introduced by the same time in 2020.
But then I realized something that made my job easier, even if it leaves the future of American democracy uncertain: These aren’t two different questions, but one intertwined question. There are ways to protect voting rights across the states — but they rely on filibuster reform in the Senate. Stacey Abrams, prophetic as always, made this point to me back in November, just a few days before the election:
The filibuster has been a useful tool, but it was only useful when people actually believed in and abided by the basic rules of the system. The Republican Party has shown itself incapable of following rules it does not like. And we cannot get to a nation where citizens get to participate in the selection of senators if we do not eliminate the filibuster to create the very baseline democracy that we require for this time.
The core power imbalance in America is that Democrats win more people, Republicans win more places. In 2020, Joe Biden won 551 counties and 81 million votes. Donald Trump won 2,588 counties and 74 million votes. The Democrats’ advantage among people was enough to win power nationally, but the Republicans’ advantage in counties gave them control of more states. When the dust settled, Republicans held 61 state legislative chambers, compared with 37 for Democrats. There are 23 states where Republicans hold the lower house, the Senate and the governorship — a governing trifecta that eases the passage of highly partisan bills — but only 15 states where Democrats do the same.
There is no doubt that Republicans perceive majoritarian democracy — “rank democracy,” as Senator Mike Lee of Utah has called it — as a threat to their interests. When House Democrats tried to pass same-day registration and vote-by-mail last year, Trump told “Fox & Friends,” “They had things, levels of voting, that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” The threat to Republican power comes from young voters and nonwhite voters, both of whom are growing as a proportion of the American electorate each year. That leaves Republicans with two options. They could try to choose more appealing candidates and fashion a more appealing agenda, to build a new coalition. Or they could use the power they have now to build legislative levees to protect themselves against the public’s will in the future. In state after state, they’ve chosen the latter path.