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The pundits are saying that the For the People Act (FTPA) — the Democrats’ historic voting rights and anti-corruption bill — is dead. It’s not, but perhaps it’s easier to craft a narrative around the futility of legislative efforts than to fairly chronicle a necessary but uphill battle.
On the morning of June 22, ahead of the Senate vote to move to debate on the FTPA, for example, Politico Playbook explained that the bill was “set to die” and would be killed “once and for all” after the Republicans filibustered it, which they ultimately did after 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats backed the motion to proceed on the bill. Moreover, according to Politico, the FTPA has “always been a messaging bill — a check-the-box move allowing party leaders to tell the left they tried.” Why was this pro-democracy legislation derided as a “messaging bill” and now unable to be resurrected? It was never explained.
Pundits have long peddled this form of defeatism around the legislation. The Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus declared the bill was dead in early June and that Sen. Joe Manchin signed its “writ of execution” (within weeks of the proclamation, Manchin actually voted to proceed to debate on the FTPA). The New York Times’ Nate Cohn, likewise, has for months criticized the bill, calling it, among other things, “destined to fail,” and claiming it does not represent “even [a] serious effort” to get legislation passed. And ahead of President Biden’s July 13 Philadelphia speech on voting rights, MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan said that the FTPA “died in the Senate last month because of the filibuster,” leading White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki to shoot back, “I’m not going to accept that it died. We’re still fighting for it.”
Rarely do these pundits provide evidence for their claims, mainly relying on personal interpretations about events and discussions to which they likely aren’t privy. (So too do they conveniently ignore the repeated statements from Democratic leadership that the bill remains alive.) Worse yet, these ostensible experts who pontificate about political pragmatism and what is “realistic” are ignoring — or worse, erasing — the grassroots activism taking place across the country to get this bill passed. The reality is that momentum is growing and pressure is mounting to make the FTPA the law of the land. And activists are not deterred by Washington “wisdom” or the limits of the filibuster.
The FTPA is the most critical fair elections and anti-corruption bill in generations. It would, among other things, curb voter suppression, make voting easier and more accessible, outlaw partisan gerrymandering of congressional elections, and reduce the influence of big money in politics while empowering small donors. It is not hyperbole to claim that this bill would bring us closer than we’ve ever been to a government of, by, and for the people. For this reason, grassroots activists are refusing to give up.
The Declaration for American Democracy (DFAD), for example, is a coalition of over 200 member organizations, including the Common Cause, RepresentUs, Indivisible and the NAACP. The coalition is working to realize the promise of democracy by passing the FTPA, restoring the Voting Rights Act, and fighting for D.C. statehood. DFAD teamed up with Indivisible to launch a national mobilization campaign called “Deadline for Democracy” to prompt local organizing, increase public awareness and ignite urgency around the passage of the FTPA. These groups recognize that if we want to prevent voter suppression and gerrymandering in the 2022 midterm elections, we cannot afford to procrastinate on FTPA’s passage. The campaign has held hundreds of events across the country.
Channeling the powerful legacy of the civil rights movement that won the original Voting Rights Act, Black Voters Matter has travelled from Mississippi to Washington D.C. on “freedom rides” to engage Black voters about issues disproportionately impacting their communities. The group’s goals include building Black voting power and advocating for passage of the FTPA. In an effort to mobilize young voters and voters of color around the FTPA, Fair Fight Action launched “Hot Call Summer,” a campaign directing daily phone calls to senators from every state to increase constituent pressure. Similarly, other organizations like Common Cause, RepresentUs and End Citizens United have been hosting phone banks with constituents calling legislators in favor of the FTPA.
The fight to pass the FTPA is also a fight to end or change the filibuster. Without filibuster reform, the bill cannot pass. After all, no Republicans will agree to even the most modest of improvements to our system of voting. As a result, democracy activists are concurrently targeting the filibuster. The DFAD coalition, along with other grassroots groups, recently organized a rally at the capitol in Washington D.C. to demand that their senators take action on reforming or eliminating the filibuster. Many of these same groups are also part of the Fix Our Senate coalition, composed of organizations focused on issues ranging from labor rights to environmental justice. This week, the coalition is working to pressure President Biden to take a stand against the filibuster.
Getting all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats to agree on bold reform while also ditching the filibuster is a moonshot. But activists recognize the stakes and are willing to put their bodies on the line for democracy. Driven by the belief that poor and low-wealth people must be active participants in our political process, in late June the Poor People’s Campaign hosted a “Moral March on Manchin and McConnell” to “stand against voter suppression, the filibuster, and political retrogression.” In Washington D.C., the co-chair of the campaign, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, was arrested along with 20 other demonstrators, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, for obstructing traffic to fight for the FTPA. The Poor People’s Campaign is now engaging in “A Season of Nonviolent Moral Direct Action to Save Our Democracy” that will last until August 8th. Other voting rights activists are following suit. In Arizona, for example, ten activists were arrested outside of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s office last month for protesting her reluctance to reform the filibuster.
There are countless other examples of citizen pressure to pass the FTPA, ranging from digital campaigns involving celebrities, to virtual town halls involving both politicians and grassroots leaders, to on-the-ground canvasses. What they all share in common is the belief that this fight will be decided by the people, not Washington insiders.
Pundits have a tendency to underestimate movements for democracy reform. Few predicted that a small group of dedicated Floridians could successfully run a ballot initiative in 2018 to overturn a Jim Crow constitutional provision indefinitely banning anyone convicted of a felony from voting. But they did. Nor did conventional wisdom say that ranked choice voting advocates could win on the ballot in Maine not once, but twice. As writer David Daley explains in Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy, this country has actually seen a slew of recent improbable victories for voting rights and democracy.
The mobilization around the FTPA is already generating success. Despite previously announcing his opposition to the bill, following grassroots pressure, Sen. Joe Manchin voted to move to debate on the FTPA. And the fact that House and Senate Democrats have prioritized the legislation in the first place is a product of years of activism around addressing our democracy crisis.
This is not enough, of course. Sen. Manchin still must be pressured to support the FTPA in full, and the filibuster requires reform. Moreover, anti-democratic forces like Mitch McConnell-aligned One Nation are spending millions of dollars on misinformation campaigns, and the Republican Party is hell bent on killing this bill at any cost.
Yet, despite the roadblocks and smear campaigns, the bill remains incredibly popular, which should embolden those who care about preserving our democracy. In one of the first national polls since the GOP filibustered the FTPA, Data for Progress and Equal Citizens found that 62 percent of likely voters say that they support the bill, including 85 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Independents. This popularity is consistent with other polling, suggesting that the onslaught of GOP attacks against the bill have not undermined overall public appetite for a more accessible and expansive democracy.
While much more work remains to be done, including by President Biden himself, the White House is not ready to accept that the FTPA is dead. There’s no reason for anyone else to accept that, either.
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Mahnoor Imran is an Equal Citizens Fellow.
Adam Eichen is Executive Director at Equal Citizens and co-author of Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want (Beacon Press, 2017) with Frances Moore Lappé. Follow him on Twitter @adameichen.