Restoring the Senate to Protect the Freedom to Vote

By Senators Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Tom Daschle (SD), Kent Conrad (ND), Byron Dorgan (ND), Bob Graham (FL), Doug Jones (AL), Mary Landrieu (LA), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Mark Pryor (AR), Mark Udall (CO), and Mark Begich (AK).

Our nation has faced an unprecedented number of challenges over the past several years. While our democracy has endured, it has also shown itself to be brittle. Overcoming these obstacles and protecting democracy will require a legislative branch with the capacity to produce results. Unfortunately, in today’s Senate, certain Senate rules, including the filibuster, have clearly become weaponized legislative tools for obstruction rather than progress. The signers of this op-ed are not in accord on whether to eliminate the procedural mechanism of the filibuster entirely. We do agree, however, that meaningful reform to Senate rules is necessary if the filibuster is to continue and if the Senate is to properly function, especially to protect free and fair elections.

Many senators have voiced frustrations regarding the chamber’s inability to deliberate and legislate. Amendments have become a rare rather than regular practice. Anonymous holds keep important business from coming to the Senate floor. And Senate rules are used more frequently to prevent the Senate from even debating and voting on matters critical to our constituents and the nation.

These frustrations have grown more intense recently, particularly around the critical issue of voting rights. Last year, we saw an unprecedented amount of misinformation regarding the winner of the 2020 presidential election, a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying the election results, and partisan state legislatures trying to overturn the election in their states while erecting barriers to voting in future elections. Congressional Democrats have proposed multiple bills aimed at strengthening our democracy and advancing voter rights legislation that would instill confidence in our elections only to see them never reach the Senate floor. If the Senate cannot even begin to debate and vote on something as foundational as voting rights, we must reform Senate rules and restore the chamber to its rightful place as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Protecting the freedom to vote should not be a partisan issue. In 2006, for example, the Senate voted 98–0 to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. The Help America Vote Act passed 98–2 in the wake of the chaos of the 2000 election. One of its primary proponents was Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Today, public polling shows the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act have broad bipartisan support among Americans, including large numbers of Democratic, Republican, and independent voters. Additionally, many components of the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act have passed with bipartisan support in dozens of red, blue, and purple states and localities in recent years.

Our former colleague Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) recently wrote in an op-ed that, “No barrier — not even the filibuster — should stand in the way of our sacred obligation to protect our democracy.” We could not agree more.

The filibuster was shaped to protect the voices of the minority in the Senate and on occasion has promoted debate and advanced compromise. But it has also been abused by minorities of senators of both parties to block civil rights, anti-lynching, and voting rights legislation over the years. We can all agree that our country is better off for having overcome the opposition to those bills. Unfortunately, the chamber has proven that it is incapable of rising to the occasion today because of a minority aided time and again by the filibuster.

The country cannot afford to have this abuse forever define the Senate, whether it leads to permanent gridlock or the full elimination of the filibuster. A better path forward is for the Senate to pursue reforms of Senate rules that will restore and prioritize deliberation, debate and progress on the most pressing issues facing our country.

A number of ideas have been discussed for altering Senate rules that, separately or in tandem, could serve as a springboard for discussion on reform that would uphold both minority rights and the primacy of the majority. It does not have to be all or nothing.

With legislation like the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act languishing in the Senate, there is little doubt that our democracy is being tested again. It’s time for rules reform that will restore a functional United States Senate. Our democracy cannot wait another day.

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