It’s Now the 11th Hour to Protect U.S. Democracy From GOP War on Voting

Interview with Markus Batchelor, People For The American Way's deputy director of leadership programs, conducted by Scott Harris

Thousands of protesters rallied in Washington D.C. and other small and large U.S. cities on Aug. 28 demanding the Senate act to protect voting rights. Organizers of the march, including Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King lll, hoped to pressure lawmakers to pass legislation to counter a wave of Republican party voter suppression laws and election subversion measures in GOP-controlled states that disproportionately impact communities of color and other Democratic-leaning voters. The rally was held on the 58th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic 1963 March on Washington, in which he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” 

Throughout the summer, protests and nonviolent civil disobedience actions have been held demanding passage of The For The People Act, a sweeping elections and ethics bill that would set national standards for voting and override state-level restrictions and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore voting rights protections that were stripped out of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Markus Batchelor, People For The American Way’s deputy director of leadership programs, who talks about the urgency to pressure Biden and Democratic congressional leaders to prevent the further erosion of voting rights and the imposition of white nationalist minority rule.

MARKUS BATCHELOR: On the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington, thousands of people came from across the country and from here in the district to demonstrate, to come together, to make their voices heard, to tell the Congress and the president that the right to vote is on the line in very real ways this year right now. And if we are going to secure the dream that so many folks dreamed 58 years ago on the mall in Washington that we needed to recommit to those fights today.

And so, you saw young people and veterans of the movement and activists from a broad range of coalitions come together and make their voices heard — to demand that we pass legislation like the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the D.C. statehood bill to open up our democracy and make it real for so many folks who have been historically shut out. And so, you know, that is what we saw, really, a convergence of humanity, folks from all walks of life coming together to say that this is the central issue — that if we care as much about funding the infrastructure bill as the president did, then we should care equally as much in really securing and buttressing the infrastructure of our democracy. And fundamentally, so — first and foremost — that’s making sure that everybody has the right to vote.

SCOTT HARRIS: Marcus, I think it would be important to get a status check on these two pieces of legislation. And that would be the John Lewis Civil Rights Advancement Act that we’ve been talking about as well as For the People Act.

MARKUS BATCHELOR: Both bills, both For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are both now squarely in the purview of the United States Senate. The U.S. House passed the For the People Act back in March. And so it has been sitting in the Senate, for over 170 days. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was passed by the House last week. They came back briefly from recess to pass that bill. And now that is squarely in the Senate, the barrier now to get it onto the president’s desk and put these protections in place is the filibuster, an arcane rule that’s not in our constitution but that is really derived from from senators who wanted to block progress, to say that a simple majority wasn’t enough to pass legislation in the Senate. For most things that you needed, a 60- person super-majority to pass things through the Senate.

But what we’ve seen is that the filibuster in practice has really just been used as a tool to block progress and attempted to block in many ways, the ’64 Civil Rights Act and ’65 Voting Rights Act. And, you know, even things like the 14th and 15th Amendment. There are loopholes to getting around the filibuster during the Trump administration. The president actually got two Supreme Court justices confirmed with less than a filibuster with 51 votes. So we’ve seen in practice that the loopholes to the filibuster are wide, ie., you know, appointing a Supreme Court justice, but very narrow when it comes to things like protecting the right to vote. So we’re pressuring the Senate to say that there should be a cutout, that the filibuster should be removed and the obtacles to get in these pieces of legislation passed, and they should do it as quickly as possible to get it to the president’s desk.

SCOTT HARRIS: Marcus, there’s been much criticism of the Democrats not making voting rights a priority at this very critical moment. There’s been criticism of the congressional leadership in the Democratic party and Joe Biden himself. I wonder if you think that reading is correct. Or have you seen anything change? There seems to be much more focus on the infrastructure bill then voting rights itself. And of course, voting rights is the singular right in our democracy, from which all other rights flow. It’s gotta be ultimately the most important thing to protect. What are your thoughts about the criticism of complacency?

MARKUS BATCHELOR: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s accurate, you know, that is what advocates across our country are saying. That is what advocates have come to D.C. All summer, right? To tell the Congress, to tell the president that we worked hard, right? That we showed up in record numbers in the middle of a global pandemic to give you these majority so that you can do those fundamental things like protect our democracy. That two weeks before the president was inaugurated, right, was under direct attack from a violent overthrow. If he believes — and I think because he bore direct witness to it that he does, if the president believes that protecting our democracy, that our democracy is on a thread, they’re protecting our democracy of the essential work right now. Then these bills have to be passed, but we have not seen the type of energy and fervor from the White House or from Congress to protect voting rights than we’ve seen, for example, like you say, on the infrastructure bill, right — we saw full court press get those investments as good as they are across the lines, but ignored the voices who were critical.

To make a news majority’s possible ignoring those voices when they said we can’t keep out organizing racist laws, we can’t keep out organizing the seemingly insurmountable barriers that states across the country are putting on the right to vote. We will not be able to beat back the tidal wave of legislation that has been passed just since the last election to restrict the right to vote. And if the federal government does not step in, like it did in ’64 and ’65, then we will lose those majorities and all those other things, the progress on infrastructure and all those other issues that we care about. And we’re trying to make the president and the Congress feel that urgency — and the good thing is they’re feeling the pressure, but we need them to get this across the finish line. And unfortunately, you know, on things like gerrymandering, those deadlines are quickly elapsing. And if we don’t do something quickly, we’re gonna lose ground. And, hopefully not in very irrevocable ways.

For more information, visit People For the American Way at pfaw.org.

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