On one occasion, John Lewis confronted what he called “a threat to democracy as we know it.” States were keeping millions of voters from the polls. Tens of millions more could not easily register
Our democracy was under attack. So John Lewis championed a bill to protect it.
That wasn’t 1965 — it was 2012. And the bill John Lewis called for wasn’t the Voting Rights Act — it was the seed of what is now the For the People Act.
His final fight for our democracy was to champion both the For the People Act and the Voting Rights Act that now bears his name. Now is our time to do the same.
This summer is the make-or-break moment for our democracy — our last, best hope to get the For the People Act to President Biden’s desk. Thanks to years of advocacy, the For the People Act — the most powerful civil rights bill since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — is at the forefront of Congress’ legislative agenda. The bill passed the House in March; by the end of June, the Senate will vote on it too. With active support from both House and Senate leadership, it increasingly looks like we are one vote away from getting this bill through the Senate.
One vote away.
Since Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) came out against the bill on Sunday, that one vote feels farther out of reach than it did before. But we must keep up the fight.
If Senator Manchin had substantive concerns about the For the People Act, it might make sense to pursue a compromise instead. The problem is, he doesn’t. After all, he was an original cosponsor of the bill last Congress.
What Senator Manchin wants is a bipartisan bill — whatever it says. But if there aren’t 10 Republicans willing to investigate an insurrection that almost claimed their lives, there aren’t 10 Republicans willing to protect our democracy.
Compromising the bill simply will not solve our problem. Our best hope remains to move Senator Manchin to choose democracy over bipartisanship. We need the pro-democracy community to remain united behind this bill.
Now, Senator Manchin says that the bipartisan, compromise bill is the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that states get federal permission before they can change their election laws. I am grateful for his engagement. But make no mistake: preclearance is no substitute for the transformative democracy reforms contained in the For the People Act. It’s not even close.
First, preclearance would do nothing about the voter suppression laws states have already enacted in places like Georgia and Florida. As Senator Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) recently declared, preclearance “builds for us the fire station to protect us against future fires. But the house of democracy, as a result of these voter suppression bills all across the country, is on fire right now.”
Second, preclearance only protects voters if judges and the administration want to protect voters. Republican-appointed judges hostile to voters and people of color could approve discriminatory measures. Another Republican administration could do the same.
Third, unlike the For the People Act, preclearance does nothing about partisan gerrymandering or Big Money in politics.
Without the independent redistricting commissions in the For the People Act, the GOP will be able to win House majorities for a decade without winning a majority of votes even once.
And as John Lewis insisted in his fight for campaign finance reform, “I did not march across the bridge at Selma . . . and almost lose my life to become part of a political system so corrupt that it pollutes the very idea of what we marched for.”
Ironically, Senator Manchin knows the importance of public financing better than many people on the Hill. As Governor of West Virginia, he successfully championed a public financing system for the state’s Supreme Court. We can win his support for campaign finance reform — but only if we show him that the pro-democracy community stands behind this bill.
Fourth, preclearance is no more likely to garner 10 Republican votes in the Senate than the For the People Act. Only one Republican Senator — Lisa Murkowski — has shown any interest in restoring preclearance. Yet even Senator Murkowski, like Senator Manchin, continues to insist on proceeding through regular order rather than narrowing or abolishing the filibuster.
Meanwhile, the Senate’s number two Republican, John Cornyn, wasted no time in denouncing Senator Manchin’s proposal as a federal takeover of elections.
There is simply no path to 60 votes for any form of preclearance in the Senate. If we are going to make an exception to the filibuster for democracy reforms — which we absolutely must do — let’s do it for legislation that is actually going to save and strengthen our democracy. We cannot let this Jim Crow relic cement the new Jim Crow.
John Lewis recognized that Republicans would not rise to this historic occasion. “The American people should be asking why there is not a bipartisan push to enable Americans to cast a ballot that will be counted,” he lamented. Yet he never wavered. Forced to choose between bipartisanship and democracy itself, he voted for democracy. After all, Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment itself without a single vote from the minority party.
Senator Manchin’s position is all the more inexplicable when you consider that the For the People has widespread bipartisan support among those who matter most: the American people.
By dooming our democracy in the name of bipartisanship, Senator Manchin is betraying both.
John Lewis understood the value of the Voting Rights Act as well as anyone. He risked his life for it. But John Lewis also understood that bill’s limits. That’s why he fought for the For the People Act.
Unlike John Lewis and his heroic generation, we are not called to risk our lives. We are merely called to exercise the rights they helped to win: our votes and our voices.
Now is the moment to show Senator Manchin that we do not have to compromise with corruption, racism and minority rule. Now is the moment to reveal to all of America that Republicans have rejected democracy. And the moment for President Biden to compel members of his party in the Senate to stand up for our democracy first.
If we stand up and stand firm, we can not only protect our democracy, but transform it.
None of this will be easy. But I often remind myself of what John Lewis said as he cast his vote for the For the People Act last Congress. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? The time has come.”
So, it’s up to us. The moment is now. The time has come.
Representative Mondaire Jones is the Congressman from New York’s 17th District, serving Westchester and Rockland Counties. An attorney and former staffer in the Obama Justice Department, Jones made history when he was sworn in on January 3, 2021 as one of the nation’s first openly gay, Black members of Congress.