Voter fraud doesn't occur in big enough numbers to change outcomes, but election fraud can, and it got a boost when the Senate refused to reform the filibuster.
Here are the two fundamental questions facing the United States Senate right now: do all Americans have the right to equal access to the ballot box, and should states be allowed to ignore the will of their voters by giving their legislatures the power to overturn election results.
It all started in Georgia where the Republican super-majority legislature was upset with the Republican Secretary of State when he refused to overturn President Biden’s victory there. Arizona soon followed suit, and now there are at least fourteen Republican-controlled states enacting partisan rules that threaten the centerpiece of our democracy: free and fair elections.
There are currently Democratic-sponsored bills in the Senate that would ensure poll access and stop states from allowing partisans to interfere with the counting process and overturn outcomes that don’t favor them.
Senate Republicans know debate on these issues is a bad look for them: you can’t claim to be a supporter of democracy and simultaneously argue in favor of anti-democratic laws. What’s keeping these issues from being publicly aired, debated, and potentially acted upon by the Senate is our friend the filibuster.
Consider the origin of the word. Websters: “Filibuster…came to English in the 1840s from the Spanish filibustero, meaning "freebooter"—that is, a pirate or plunderer.”
The filibuster is a device used to stall or stop discussion, debate, and voting on the Senate floor. In its earliest incarnations, it was a seldom-used tool that kept the minority from being run over by the majority before real debate could ensue. Its use exploded during the Obama years when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) famously said his job was to stop the Obama agenda, and make sure he was a failed, one-term president. With the advent of the Hate Industrial Complex—think misleading advertisements created and paid for anonymous donors (current laws don’t force disclosure of their identities), unscrupulous political fundraisers, cable TV punditry, and social media conspiracy theories, all of which incite us to hate one another, and, it’s worth adding, profit greatly from our doing so—the filibuster went from rarely-used to constantly-used: single-digits in the 60’s—triple digits since 2008.
What the filibuster is not, is part of the Constitution. In fact, it was considered and rejected by Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton, even though Lamar Alexander, a former Tennessee senator who one assumes knew better, erroneously said current efforts at reforming the filibuster represented, “the most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them.” Here’s what was actually written by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper #22: The filibuster is a “contemptible compromise of the public good.” The other Framers agreed, and the filibuster didn’t become part of the founding documents.
Joe Manchin (D-Big Coal), who also knows better, speaking to the Charleston Gazette-Mail said, “Our founders were wise to see the temptation of absolute power and built in specific checks and balances to force compromise that serves to preserve our fragile democracy.” That retired and sitting senators don’t know that the Founders were opposed to the filibuster strains credulity. Checks and balances, yes; in the form of a filibuster, no.
Truth is, the filibuster was introduced decades after the Constitution was written and the country begun. It wasn’t until 1841, when an argument over chartering a national bank of the United States was weighed down by unlimited debate, that a rule change—namely the filibuster—was considered.
Its initial use in the 19th Century gave way to a defense of racism in the 20th Century. The 1920s saw a number of civil rights bills introduced in the Senate. All were suppressed by filibuster. According to Kevin Kruse, a historian of race and American politics at Princeton University, speaking to Vox said, “It’s been a tool used overwhelmingly by racists.” The most famous filibusters this side of “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” were the 1950s Dixiecrats, at odds with their own Democratic Party, and out of step with America, who used it to fight against desegregation and voting rights.
Vox goes on, “The defenders of Jim Crow pioneered this new filibuster, successfully deploying it again and again to block civil rights bills. [The late] Richard Russell [D-GA], a leading filibuster practitioner and staunch segregationist, said in 1949 that ‘nobody mentions any other legislation in connection with it.’ Two political scientists, Sarah Binder and Steven Smith…found that Senators’ view on filibuster reforms was tightly linked to their view on civil rights: Pro-reform senators tended to support civil rights bills, while anti-reform legislators opposed them.”
The only remaining question during this week when we celebrate MLK, who reminded us that it is never the wrong time to do the right thing, is whether the Senate will do the right thing and pass a modern voting rights bill, otherwise, we are destined to repeat the past.
©2022 Jon Sinton