Civil rights leaders expressed disappointment at the U.S. Senate’s failure to advance key voting rights legislation and change the filibuster rule, both of which they say are needed to protect democracy and ensure equal access to the ballot in what is expected to be a pivotal election year.
But they were also resolute in their will to keep whatever momentum remains from the president’s last-minute push to ultimately enact both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act into law.
Whether that happens ahead of or following the 2022 midterm elections is anyone’s guess. But civil rights groups on Thursday, following Democrats’ major defeat in the Senate, separately expressed a united vision of refusing top back down from their relentless efforts to reform an election system that has recently been inundated with a wave of Republican-led laws that make it particularly harder for Black and brown populations to vote.
Senate Republicans on Thursday used the filibuster — a tool of suppression widely criticized by Democrats as a Jim Crow relic used to prevent civil rights protections — to keep the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act from advancing to the debate stage. It would have taken at least 10 Republicans to break party ranks and stop the filibuster, but none of them budged.
In an equally split Senate, two Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — also sided with Republicans, making it impossible for the voting rights legislation to advance.
Anticipating that would happen, Senate Democrats then moved to change the Senate’s filibuster rule for this one instance, but that was also unsuccessful, leaving efforts to create a level playing field for the 2022 elections in limbo.
However, a coalition of leading civil rights groups said in a statement that they refused to call what happened in the Senate on Thursday “a defeat.” Instead, they suggested wholesale Senate Republican opposition to having fair and equal elections exposed those politicians for who they really are and showed where their priorities truly lie.
“In choosing yet again to block a vote on the bill – supported by more than three in five Americans – these Senators have revealed their contempt for the will of the people,” the group, which includes but is not limited to National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson and National Action Network President, National Council of Negro Women Executive Director Janice L. Mathis and Founder Reverend Al Sharpton, said in a statement emailed to NewsOne.
They added: “Democracy’s foes have not had the last word. As civil rights leaders and as patriotic Americans we will never stop fighting to preserve and defend the rights for which our predecessors bled and died.”
Martin Luther King III, whose family used their patriarch’s federal holiday on Monday to draw attention to the urgent need for voting rights reform, said Manchin and Sinema “let down” the U.S. and “sided with a Jim Crow relic over the voting rights of Black and Brown communities.” The chairman of the Drum Major Institute said activists and advocates must use this moment as a linchpin to stay their voting rights course.
“We have set extraordinary groundwork for change and the country will not let this fight end,” King III added. “Ending the filibuster is part of the national conversation in a way it’s never been before — people now know the filibuster is not etched in the Constitution, but rather a tool of suppression, and the voting rights secured by my father are under attack.”
Dr. Warren H. Stewart, Sr. Chairperson of the African American Christian Clergy Coalition, echoed that sentiment.
“We don’t have the luxury to stop fighting with our rights continuously under attack,” he said in a statement emailed to NewsOne. “Voting rights are the heart and soul of U.S. democracy, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that they are secure and expanded.”
Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, suggested that Republicans’ staunch opposition to advancing voting rights will come back to haunt them.
“The railroading of efforts to defend voting rights that people have died to obtain will be remembered when the veteran, who fought for this country is stopped from having a say in its direction,” Hewitt said in part. “It will be remembered when the disabled parent can no longer cast a ballot because the accessible polling place has been closed, and the next one is miles and miles away. And it will be remembered when the Black mother, among the fastest-growing part of the electorate, is forced to endure yet another election where she will have to wait in line for hours during a pandemic without access to food or water to exercise the franchise that her ancestors could not.”
Hewitt added: “The Senate may have failed to pass voting rights tonight, but the fight is not over.”
President of People For the American Way Ben Jealous said Senate Republicans “turned their backs on the American people and described their united approach to blocking voting rights as “indefensible” in part because it was being fueled by Donald Trump’s “big lie” about nonexistent election fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
“Let’s be clear,” Jealous said, “we are still in the fight against all attempts to silence the voices and votes of Americans across the country.”
The inability to advance voting rights legislation at such a crucial time in the nation’s existence “is extremely disappointing,” Robert Brandon, President &a CEO of Fair Elections Center, said Thursday night. “Protecting the freedom to vote is more important than partisan politics or outdated procedural loopholes.”
Brandon added: “Democracy is best when everyone can fully participate, no matter where they live, how much they earn or what they look like. It’s time for our elected officials to recognize this time-tested truth.”