June 19, 2021

Yesterday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, made good on his threat to defund the legislature after Democrats walked out on May 30 in order to deny the Republicans the number of people they needed to hold a vote on a bill that dramatically reworked Texas elections.

In part, Abbott is likely trying to distract Texans from yet another crisis in the state’s independent energy grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Four months ago, the electric grid failed during a cold wave, leaving more than 3 million people without electricity or heat. More than 100 people died. Now, mechanical failures during a heat wave have pushed the state to the verge of blackouts and have prompted ERCOT to ask people to turn their AC to higher temperatures, turn off their lights, and avoid using appliances that take a lot of electricity.  

To make matters worse, yesterday the Public Utility Commission of Texas lifted a moratorium on electricity disconnections put in place on private utilities because of the pandemic and extended because of the February storm. It is not clear how many people will be affected by this change, but two public utilities in Austin and San Antonio say that in late May a quarter of a million households owed an average of $600 on past-due bills. 

So it makes sense for Abbott—who has been throwing himself behind Trump-like causes anyway these days—to stir up headlines by defunding the legislature and blaming Democrats, even though, once the election bill failed, a number of Republicans told political journalist Judd Legum, who writes at Popular Information, that they did not know where some of the measures in it had come from and did not like them. For example, one lawmaker said that the provision to enable Texas judges to declare an election “void” at their discretion if someone charged that it had been fraudulent, “would be horrendous policy.” (That section of the bill was actually titled “OVERTURNING ELECTIONS.”) In any case, Abbott’s gesture will hit not legislators, but staffers.

But Abbott’s attack on voting rights in Texas identifies the crux of the current crisis in American democracy. For thirty years, Republicans have strengthened their hand in elections not by adjusting their message to win more voters but by gaming the system: suppressing the vote and gerrymandering. 

When voters put the Democrats in charge of the federal government in 2020, Republicans responded by trying to game the system at the state level even more completely. First, when former president Trump refused to accept his loss in the election, he and some of his cronies tried to pressure Republicans in state governments to “find” the votes he needed to win, count out Democratic ballots, or, failing either of those things, allow state legislatures to choose their own electors rather than the ones that reflected the will of the voters. Their justification was the Big Lie: that Trump had won the election but had been cheated of the White House by fraud.

Their attempts led to the January 6 insurrection but did not succeed in putting Trump back into the White House. Since then, in Republican-dominated states across the country, legislatures have used the Big Lie to justify the sort of election “reform” that cuts back voting rights and enables state officials to overturn the popular vote. If those rules go into effect, it will be virtually impossible for Democrats to win a majority in the future. And a one-party government is not a democracy.

The conflict over elections, then, is a conflict over the nature of our government. It will play out over the next week, as the Senate takes up S1, the For the People Act. This measure protects the right to vote, ends partisan gerrymandering, limits the influence of money in politics, and establishes new ethics rules for presidents and other federal officeholders. The House has already passed a similar act on a strict party vote, but the measure cannot pass the Senate under the Senate’s current rules. The filibuster will permit just 41 of the 50 Republican senators to stop the act from passing. 

Democrats could pass the act if all 51 Democrats (including Vice President Kamala Harris, who breaks a tie in the Senate) voted in favor both of the measure and of ending the filibuster. But Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has made it very clear he opposes both. He has also said he wants any measure going forward to be bipartisan.

But that is not the final word on the For the People Act.

Last week, Manchin indicated which of the measures in the For the People Act—and in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—he supports. He has called for expanding access to voting, an end to partisan gerrymandering, voter ID, automatic registration at motor vehicle offices, making Election Day a holiday, and making it easier for state officials to purge voters from the rolls. This is a mixture of the priorities of the leadership of both parties.

The Democrats have lined up behind Manchin’s compromise. Voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, former Texas congressman and voting rights advocate Beto O’Rourke, and Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison have all signed on to Manchin’s blueprint. “I am so grateful for what Senator Manchin has done and what he's doing right now,” O’Rourke said. “He's trying to find a way to protect voting rights in this country at a moment that they are under attack in more than 40 states.”

But Republican leadership has dug in its heels against the measure. They immediately tried to associate it publicly with Abrams rather than the conservative Manchin, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said no Republican should vote for it. Since then, he has held two press conferences— unusual for him—to voice his objections to the bill, suggesting he is concerned that some Republicans might be wavering. As if to make sure they would all stay on board, yesterday, former president Trump endorsed a primary challenger against Senator Lisa Murkowski.

But the pieces in the For the People Act itself—even before Manchin’s compromises—are generally very popular among people of both parties. What will happen when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) forces a vote on the bill or, perhaps, breaks it up into pieces, taking away Republicans’ ability to make the blanket argument that they don’t like federal legislation on voting? Will Republicans hold their wall if they are forced to vote on the bill piece by piece?

And, in the service of a very popular bill that will protect our democracy, opposed by an entrenched minority that refuses to compromise as the Democrats have, will Manchin agree to carving out voting legislation from the filibuster as the Senate has already carved out financial measures and judicial nominations?

What is on the table this week is a bill that carries outsized weight for its role in our democracy. In 1854, Democrats pushing the Kansas-Nebraska Act cleared the way for the spread of human enslavement to the new western territories and the subsequent domination of the federal government by elite slave owners. In 1890, Republicans backing the Federal Elections Bill tried, one last time, to protect Black voting before voter suppression ended it for the next seventy years. In 1965, Democrats and Republicans together agreed to end racial discrimination in voting.

In 2021, once again, Congress will be voting on a measure that will define who we are.