What Happened in the Senate Battle for Voting Rights

In the face of Republican voter suppression and election subversion, Senate Democrats are poised to move forward on a crucial piece of voting rights legislation. The process of introducing legislation, bypassing the filibuster and enacting the legislation will take several distinct steps. Follow this space for updates.

Live Updates

Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022

Last updated: 10:30 p.m.

  • The vote to change filibuster rules for the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act failed on a 48-52 vote. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) were the lone Democrats to vote against the rule change.
  • Majority Leader Sen. Schumer has moved to reconsider the cloture vote and has made a point of order to implement the proposed rule change. Senate Pro Tempore Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) rejected the point of order, as expected. Schumer then appealed the ruling of the chair and the Senate is now voting whether to implement the rule change or not.
  • Majority Leader Schumer proposed “a modest change of Senate rules to establish a talking filibuster for this voting rights legislation. Every senator will be allowed to speak twice on final passage of voting rights legislation. They can speak as long as they want; days, if they can muster it. But all other dilatory tactics, any dilatory amendments, motions and points of order shall be deemed out of order, and any appeals shall be determined without debate. After each member has had their say it will be time to vote, and only 50 votes will be required for passage.”
  • Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) described how a supermajority requirement was not part of the original Senate. Quoting Alexander Hamilton, he said “If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of the majority, the result will be tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.”
  • Sen. Kaine (D-Va.): “Our proposal is to restore a talking filibuster that has been the history of the Senate the vast majority of our history, and to make a simple change, to make it public rather than secret, so that our colleagues and the American public can understand and then hold us accountable for our action.”
  • Sen. King (I-Maine) argued in favor of a simple majority vote to pass legislation. “It takes two thirds to impeach a president, it takes two thirds to pass a constitutional amendment and it takes three quarters of the states to pass a constitutional amendment. [The founding fathers] knew fractions. They didn’t apply any fractions when they talked about the passage of legislation.”
  • After the failed cloture vote, senators continued to speak in favor of a rules change to modify the filibuster. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said “Today we’re voting on a proposal to change our rules, so that we can protect our democracy and the rules that have stood for generations to assure that both parties continue to have a role in counting the votes. And well, it feels astonishing that not a single Republican is going to join us today.”
  • As expected, the Senate vote for cloture on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act failed to reach the required 60-vote threshold. The vote failed 49-51 on a party-line vote, with all Republicans voting in opposition. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) joined Republicans in voting no for procedural reasons, so he can enter a motion to reconsider the vote.
  • The Senate voted to invoke cloture to end debate on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) closed debate on the bill. “The laws passed by legislatures throughout the country do nothing less than to prevent certain kinds of Americans…from participating in the democratic process. We can begin to put a stop to these acts tonight by voting to proceed…These bills should be passed by this chamber as soon as possible and if cloture is not invoked we must change the rules of the Senate.”
  • Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) called on his colleagues to meet the moral urgency of the moment. “We are caught somewhere between January 5th and January 6th. Between our hopes and fears. Between bigotry and beloved community. In each moment, we the people have to decide which ware we are going to go and what we are willing to sacrifice in order to get there.”
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pointed out that under a talking filibuster, the minority would still have a voice in the legislative process. “The minority, whether Republican or Democratic, would have days and days to slow the process down and rally the American people around their ideas…But at the end of the day, the majority rule would prevail, which is what a democratic society is all about.”
  • Through unanimous consent, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has moved the cloture vote to end debate to 8:00 p.m.
  • Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) highlighted the burden of Republican voting laws on minority voters. “Some lawmakers want to curtail the right to vote not for all Americans, but for the most vulnerable and historically disenfranchised. History will not look kindly on inaction at this critical moment, and we must show the American people that we will not flinch when faced with a choice to protect our democracy or let it crumble before our eyes.”
  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) called on her Senate colleagues to put patriotism above partisanship. “I’m not asking anyone to do anything nearly as difficult as putting on a uniform and going to war or crossing a bridge to be met with billy clubs…I’m not asking my Republican colleagues to risk their lives on the bus or bridge…All I’m asking for is the bare minimum. All I’m begging them to do is merely to not sit in silence in the face of grave injustice. To not let being partisan keep you from being a patriot.”
  • Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) objected to Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) criticism of the proposed rule change. “What we’re proposing today is in the deepest tradition of the United States Senate…Full, robust extended debate. That’s what is being proposed later.”
  • Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) spoke on the Senate floor, making it clear that he will not support any changes to the filibuster that are enacted by a simple majority. This would include the option to reinstate the talking filibuster. Instead, Manchin emphasized the need for more debate and his opposition to Majority Leader Schumer moving to close debate later this evening. Manchin stood on the Senate floor next to a sign that read, “The United State Senate has never been able to end debate with a simple majority.” However, the Senate did not adopt Senate Rule 22, which now closes debate with a 60-vote threshold, until 1917, and there are numerous exemptions to the filibuster.
  • “I have a hard time listening to people that want to talk about this issue and don’t talk about facts,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). “In the United States today, it is more difficult for the average African American to vote than the average white American. That is not rhetoric, that is fact.”
  • “I am the first United States senator to be elected completely by mail,” explained Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on the Senate floor. “The second United States senator elected completely by mail was my friend, Republican Gordon Smith.” Wyden stressed the bipartisan nature of vote by mail policy over the past two decades as it began to grow in popularity across the country. That changed when the lies of former President Trump turned it into a partisan issue, Wyden explained. “We’ve heard a lot of revisionist history about vote by mail,” he added. For more on Oregon’s long history of successful vote by mail elections, read “Universal Mail-In Voting Transformed Civic Participation. Here’s How:” by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D).
  • Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) finished speaking on the Senate floor, after explaining the common sense reforms in the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. Padilla illustrated the various ways the bill would make it easier to register to vote and cast a ballot. “No matter where you live, no matter which state, no matter which zip code, no matter your political party preference, you deserve multiple safe, secure, accessible options for registering to vote and for casting your ballot,” said Padilla.
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) spoke on the Senate floor.
  • The Senate has resumed debate on proposed voting rights legislation. You can watch live Senate floor procedures here. The Senate is expected to vote for cloture at 6:30 p.m. Once the cloture vote fails, Democrats will attempt to modify Senate rules to pass the bill over a Republican filibuster. In the figure below, we lay out the next steps for Schumer to change the filibuster. Note: if Senate Democrats successfully enact the rule change for the talking filibuster, it could mean several days (or more) of Republican speeches on the Senate floor before they can move to final passage.

Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022

  • The Senate has adjourned for the day and will resume tomorrow at 10 a.m. to continue debate on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. It is expected that the Senate will vote for cloture, or the end of debate, at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow. Earlier this evening, Schumer indicated his proposed rule change — to allow for a talking filibuster on this piece of legislation.
  • Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Democrats held a press conference on the path forward for the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. Watch here.
  • The Senate has resumed following a short recess. While speaking to the press following a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting, Schumer confirmed that if Republicans block a cloture vote, he will put forward a proposal to change the rules to allow for a talking filibuster on this legislation. You can watch live Senate floor proceedings here.
  • The Senate has gone into recess until 6:15 p.m. During the recess, the Senate Democratic Caucus is meeting to discuss the path forward for voting rights legislation. Early reports suggest Democrats will propose a rule change to create a “talking filibuster” that will force opponents of a bill to hold the floor and speak to block bills.
  • This afternoon, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) filed for cloture (the end of debate) on the House-passed voting rights bill. Unless there’s an agreement to alter the timeline, this will set up a cloture vote by Thursday. Schumer also made a procedural move so there cannot be any new amendments to the bill. “Members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, especially on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as voting rights,” Schumer stated, as he opened debate. “And the public is entitled to know where each senator stands.”
  • The Senate is expected to reconvene at noon to consider the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. Following Leader remarks, the Senate will take up the House “message,” the legislative vehicle for the voting rights legislation that the House approved last week. Once the message is “laid down,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will file cloture on the bill. The cloture vote is expected to occur during Wednesday’s session.

Friday, Jan. 14, 2022

  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced late last night that the Senate would begin debate on the House-passed voting rights bill on Tuesday. He pointed to circumstances around COVID-19 exposure and a winter storm set to hit the East Coast this weekend as reasons to delay past his original MLK Jr. Day deadline. He vowed to continue pushing for voting rights legislation. “Members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, particularly on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as this one. And we will proceed.” He warned that if Senate Republicans choose obstruction, “the Senate will consider and vote on changing the Senate rules.” Read Sen. Schumer’s full remarks here.

Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022

  • Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) released a statement Thursday afternoon reiterating his opposition to changing the filibuster. He argued that the filibuster plays an important role in protecting American democracy from unrestrained majority rule. “Allowing one party to exert complete control in the Senate with only a simple majority will only pour fuel onto the fire of political whiplash…As such, and as I have said many times before, I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.” You can read his full statement here.
  • Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz) spoke on the Senate floor on Thursday, emphasizing her opposition to changing the Senate filibuster rules. Her speech comes after a protracted showdown within the Democratic caucus to get all 50 members on board with rule changes. Despite Sinema reiterating her support for the voting rights bills, she stressed that she would not change the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation. “I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division affecting our country,” said Sinema. You can watch live Senate floor proceedings here.
  • Senate Majority Whip Dick Durban (D-Ill.) called on his Senate colleagues to put the right to vote above fealty to the filibuster. “Each day we open the session Senate by pledging allegiance to the flag…But we don’t stand here and pledge allegiance to the filibuster,” he said.
  • The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5746, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, with all Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans voting against. The passage was part of a coordinated plan to enable the bill to receive a full debate in the Senate, as outlined in a memo from the Senate Democratic Caucus yesterday. The bill, which contains both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, now heads back to the Senate for debate on the Senate floor. Important to note, this bill can bypass the typical procedural motions to open debate,  meaning the bill will be considered and debated while previous voting rights bills were blocked by Republicans during the procedural actions.
  • U.S. House of Representatives began a one hour debate on H.R. 5746, a NASA bill that has been substituted with voting rights legislation and is now named the Freedom To Vote: John R. Lewis Act. The House is expected to take a final vote at approximately 10:15 – 10:45 a.m.

Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022

  • The House Committee on Rules will meet tonight to discuss H.R. 5746, which can now be cited as the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. In a tactical move, the House will strip H.R. 5746 of its original language regarding NASA leasing of “underutilized” property to private groups, and instead insert the combined text of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The House Committee is set to vote on the rules governing the debate of this bill this evening, with a full vote on the passage of H.R. 5746 set for tomorrow.
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer plans to take advantage of a rarely-used procedural tactic: “messages between the Houses.” There is an unrelated bill — regarding NASA leasing “underutilized” property to private groups — that has already moved several times (sometimes called the amendment exchange or “ping-pong method”) between the House and Senate for revisions. Either today or tomorrow, the House will replace the existing language from the NASA “shell” bill with the language of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. If the House passes this revised bill, they will send it to the Senate. Due to procedural rules, the motion to proceed on this “message” cannot be filibustered, meaning the Senate will be able to open debate on the bill. 
  • According to this strategy, the Senate will begin debate on the voting rights legislation within the next few days, teeing up a final vote by Monday, Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While the Monday vote to adopt the legislation will still be subject to the 60-vote filibuster threshold, the opportunity to cast an up-down vote on modifying Senate rules for the purpose of passing the legislation itself (instead of a motion to proceed) puts the pressure on hesitant senators.

Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022

  • President Biden and Vice President Harris spoke in Georgia in the district of the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a major proponent of voting rights during his lifetime and leader in the civil rights movement. President Biden condemned the unwillingness of Republicans to protect the right to vote, noting that Republicans oppose even debating the issue. Given that Republican legislatures can pass laws restricting the right to vote by a majority vote, he argued that there was no reason the Senate can’t protect the right to vote by a majority vote, and explicitly endorsed changing Senate rules: “To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.”

Monday, Jan. 3, 2022

  • In a letter to colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed to debate and consider changes to Senate rules by Jan. 17. Schumer’s letter calls for his colleagues to make changes to the filibuster: “We must adapt. The Senate must evolve, like it has many times before.” Schumer’s vow to vote on rule changes on or before Jan. 17 coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Read more about the letter here.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). Almost immediately after the ruling, states began to pass restrictive voting laws that the federal government previously barred them from enacting. This trend only accelerated in the past year, when Republican state legislators introduced and passed new voter suppression bills. “Big Lie” conspiracies continue to metastasize across the country and pose a serious threat of election subversion in 2022 and 2024. Combined with severely gerrymandered maps across the country after this year’s redistricting cycle, the need for federal action has only become more urgent.

There are two major bills targeting national voting rights: The Freedom to Vote Act would set national standards for how states conduct federal elections, intended to directly counter the wave of new voter suppression laws. Meanwhile, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act focuses on the VRA and the provisions struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. By updating the formula that the Court ruled was outdated (and consequently, an unconstitutional burden on states), the bill would restore the crucial oversight provisions as well as Section 2 of the VRA, which was weakened by the Supreme Court in Brnovich v. DNC last summer.

The Senate only requires a simple majority, or 51 votes, to actually pass a bill after debate has ended. But, since it takes 60 votes to close debate, the 60 vote threshold — known as the filibuster — is effectively the requirement for passing most bills. Since there are only 50 members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, Republicans have used the filibuster to their advantage — continually obstructing Democrats from even opening debate on the voting rights bills. Senate Republicans blocked the For the People Act in June, the revised bill in October and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in November.