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U.S. democracy at “Critical Risk” without filibuster reform

Marc Morial, Esq. / December 17, 2021

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“If Congress fails to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, American democracy will be at critical risk … Defenders of democracy in America still have a slim window of opportunity to act. But time is ticking away, and midnight is approaching. To lose our democracy but preserve the filibuster in its current form — in which a minority can block popular legislation without even having to hold the floor — would be a short-sighted blunder that future historians will forever puzzle over.”

“Statement in Support of the Freedom to Vote Act,” an open letter signed by more than 150 scholars of US democracy


This week, the Biden administration convened 111 world leaders in a virtual meeting dubbed the Summit for Democracy.

Focused on three vital areas — defending democracy against authoritarianism, the fight against corruption, and respect for human rights — the summit will be followed by a “year of action.” In the United States, this “action” is to include new initiatives for supporting free media, combating corruption, democratic reforms, civic technology, and electoral integrity.

Unless reform of the filibuster is among these initiatives, all the others are likely to fail.

American democracy is at a tipping point, and only filibuster reform can save it.

This is not a partisan observation. Last month, for the first time, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) added the United States to its list of “backsliding” democracies.

IDEA defines democracy as based on five core attributes: Representative Government, Fundamental Rights, Checks on Government, Impartial Administration and Participatory Engagement.

As long as the filibuster can be used to block legislation to protect voting rights and reverse states’ efforts to overturn and undermine free and fair elections, the United States cannot guarantee democracy.

According to IDEA’s report: “Unlike outright authoritarian regimes or even hybrid regimes, backsliding democracies use parliamentary majorities, obtained by initially free and fair elections and high levels of electoral support, to gradually dismantle checks on government, freedom of expression, a free media and minority rights from within the democratic system.”

Though this process “is often gradual,” the report called Donald Trump’s baseless attack on the 2020 election results a “historic turning point” that “undermined fundamental trust in the electoral process.”

Our nation faces an existential choice between an arcane and outdated procedural Senate rule and democracy itself. The Freedom to Vote Act expands opportunities to vote, thwarts voter suppression, limits partisan gerrymandering, prevents election sabotage, and promotes election security. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore a requirement in the Voting Rights Act that jurisdictions with recent histories of discrimination secure federal “preclearance” before altering their voting laws and allow the U.S. Department of Justice and other stakeholders to more effectively challenge discriminatory voting laws.

Very simply, American democracy cannot survive if these measures are not enacted, and these measures cannot be enacted as long as the filibuster exists in its current form.

Currently, there are more than 160 exemptions from the filibuster, for issues ranging from foreign policy and defense to judicial confirmations and health care. Unless we create an exemption for voting rights, none of the other exceptions will matter. The extended minority rule that will result from the Senate’s failure will endanger not only democracy but our economic stability and national security.

As International IDEA Secretary General wrote, “This is about more than safeguarding abstract principles or winning geopolitical battles — it is about protecting the dignity of real human beings, which democracy does better than any other political arrangement. Every democratic reversal is not a geopolitical battle lost — it is a constellation of lives that goes dark.”


Marc H. Morial is the president and Chief Executive Officer of the National Urban League, the nation’s largest civil rights organization.




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