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Why We’re Prioritizing Voting Rights (When Everyone Else Is Talking about Infrastructure)

Posted on July 1, 2021

Dear Fellow Organizers,

Last week I was asked by a devoted postcard writer if the constant effort was worthwhile, since he felt that the Republican Minority has been quite effective in blocking the possibility of passing S1, the For the People Act, which will protect voting rights for all Americans.

I went home feeling that I had not done an effective job of convincing him. 

The Republican assault on our democracy and our ability to assure that the vote, the most essential right of all Americans, can be protected demands that we become well educated in how Washington politics works. If you are like me, you have resisted becoming immersed in the manipulations we see within the Congress, particularly the Senate. After four years of a destructive administration, we were ready for our Congress to enact legislation that would positively impact all Americans. We were hopeful after Covid relief, but then we watched as the obstruction began again. 

But we have a responsibility to make sense of what is happening, since the energy and continued efforts of all those who have worked so hard, quietly, and often alone in their homes, relies on our ability to assure them that their efforts are not only worthwhile, but imperative. 

What happened in Washington last week?

 President Biden “celebrated” the bipartisan agreement negotiated to present an infrastructure bill to the Senate. This bill excluded most of the progressive issues, like child care coverage and funding, climate change policies, and corporate tax increases initially proposed. He asserted that he “knows how Congress works,” intimating that going through this process was the way to prove to Senators Manchin and Sinema, the two Democratic Senators who continue to block the vote (and oppose eliminating the filibuster) that he is willing to work “across the aisles.”  

(As progressives, we can look forward to another bill, to include all of the infrastructure issues we believe in, passed through reconciliation in the coming months.)

Senator Manchin, Democrat from West Virginia, has been at the center of politics since President Biden took office. Through Swing Blue Alliance, we sent tens of thousands of postcards to his constituents asking that they let him know they support S1. He is in a tough spot: to hold his seat in a red state, he needs to continue to look for Republican support, as he asserts moderate Democratic positions. In working with a bipartisan group, including Manchin and Susan Collins from Maine (a supposedly moderate Republican), the President has given them the voice to state that they are achieving bipartisan results.

Is this the Administration’s model for passage of the For the People Act?

While Senator Manchin repeatedly said that he would not support filibuster reform, or vote for S1, he quickly proposed his own Voting Rights provisions, which includes some significant new protections (making Election Day a holiday, ending gerrymandering, and more), while allowing for Republican measures. While Biden quickly supported this, the Republican leadership was in opposition, exposing again their obstructionist positions and refusal to be bipartisan. Will this allow Manchin to stand with the Democrats in getting S1 to the Senate Floor for a vote?

Senate Leader Schumer has repeatedly stated that S1 is his top priority. I know that many Swing Blue Alliance postcard hosts had questions about the postcard campaign we worked on some months ago that went to his constituents, but know that our data behind every campaign is strategic and purposeful. Calls coming into congressional offices are logged and then used to prioritize issues that are brought to the Senate floor. While it seems that Infrastructure has taken all of the effort, voting rights continue to be our priority, and the issue that we must keep in focus, and the focus of the Senate.

What’s the latest news?

Last night, Susan Labandibar, Swing Blue Alliance Coordinator, met with Senator Markey and Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland. They asked us to keep up the pressure on moderate Senators. Senator Markey said:

“History is looking at these Democratic senators and watching to see what they will do. If we need to change the filibuster rules to get this to happen, we will. What will you say to voters next year if you haven’t delivered this bill? Spread the good word: The next vote [on S1] is going to happen in the next few weeks. They need to hear from people all across this land. Congress is a stimulus response institution and there’s nothing more stimulating than constituent calls. It makes a big difference.”

Democracy can be a slow-moving machine, but we need to be the engine that keeps it moving!

We are all living with considerable heat, from our endangered environment and our political climate.

What can we do right now?

Let’s keep cool and keep working: Contact the people in your groups now. Energize them and encourage them, solicit more organizers, reach out to friends in other states,  because we are all relying on one another to move our country ahead.

Thank you to all of you. You are an amazing group of citizens! 

Janet Nelson

—  Janet Nelson is a retired clinical psychologist based in western Mass. She has worked on progressive campaigns since 1988, including serving as co-chair of the NJ Coalition to Save Darfur, 2005-2012.