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After months of inaction, the Senate formally took up voting rights legislation on Jan. 19, 2022. The vote did not produce the result we wanted. Though desperately needed, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act failed to pass.

Few bills ever make it to the Senate floor. This time was different. Many senators spoke out, making their position on the sacred right to vote clear.

Democratic leadership pushed hard for this bill—going so far as to propose reforms to Senate rules to clear the way for its passage. Their attempt to modify the filibuster also failed by a vote of 48-52, dooming the voting rights bill. Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) joined with every Republican to reject the limited rules change, which would have afforded members of the minority two speeches before proceeding to a vote on the underlying measure if no members held the floor.

Our country needs federal voting rights legislation now. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock (GA) laid bare the stark challenge before us, saying: “Some people don’t want some people to vote.”

The Silver Lining: Getting Voting Rights on the Record

What the Senate failed to do was disappointing, but there was a silver lining. Few bills ever make it to the Senate floor. January 19, 2022, was different. Many senators spoke out, making their position on the sacred right to vote clear.

The vote also capped a long process of recruiting senators to agree to a filibuster change. Sen. Angus King (ME) was opposed to changing the filibuster until recently. When asked what changed his mind, he expressed his belief that protecting the right to vote was not an issue of policy difference but a matter that goes to the core of our democracy.

The Filibuster and the Power of the Minority

During the debate, many Senate Republicans talked about the importance of the filibuster in preserving minority rights in the Senate. Left out of this argument is that a state like California with approximately 39 million people and a state like South Dakota with just under 900,000 residents each enjoy equal representation in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (KY) had stark words. He said that a change to the filibuster would “shatter the soul” of the Senate, even though the filibuster has been changed 160 times in the past.

Lost in these protestations against changing the Senate’s supermajority rule is the importance of federal action on voting rights at a time when laws are being enacted across the country to suppress the vote—often on simple majority votes.

Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) reminded his colleagues that Black Georgians had to wait for six, eight, even ten hours to cast their ballot in the last election. He recalled that many at the historically Black Texas Southern University had to wait six hours to vote during the Texas primary in March 2020.

History Shows Persistence is Key to Voting Rights

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was pending business before the Senate for “60 working days.” The advancement of voting rights has never come quickly or easily. This work is not over.

The advancement of voting rights has never come quickly or easily. This work is not over.

Another matter currently before the Senate has garnered bipartisan attention—reform to the Electoral Count Act of 1887. A group of bipartisan senators is working to find common ground. The changes in this bill alone will be inadequate to address voter suppression. However, it could be a successful vehicle for additional necessary reforms. These could include amendments to prevent state legislatures from overturning election results, make election day a national holiday, support small-donor financing, institute gerrymandering reforms, or make absentee/vote-by-mail easier—all necessary changes that could make a substantial difference for voters.

As the great civil rights leader and legislator John Lewis once said, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime.” We need to keep pressing for Senate passage of voting rights protections. We will not stop working to pass the provisions of the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. And we will advocate relentlessly to advance measures that will make access to the ballot accessible to all Americans.

José Santos Woss

José Santos Woss

Director for Justice Reform
José is FCNL’s Director for Justice Reform. He leads FCNL’s work on criminal justice reform, election integrity, and policing.