This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Right before the Senate left for recess earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) attempted to once again force a vote on the For The People Act (S. 1), the most significant fair elections bill in generations. All fifty Democratic senators voted to bring the bill from committee to the full Senate floor, but because Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) objected to moving forward immediately, there could not be a motion to proceed to debate it.
Schumer, undeterred, promised that protecting voting rights will be the upper body’s first order of business in September, even scheduling a vote to begin debate on S. 1 when the Senate returns.
The HuffPost’s Paul Blumenthal summed it up well: all this maneuvering “showed that [Schumer] intends to keep pushing for the bill.” This alone is a major victory for grassroots activists who have been waging an inspiring months-long battle to keep the bill at the forefront of the Senate’s agenda.
While significant hurdles remain over the next month — including getting senators on board with reforming the filibuster — there is a growing sense that the fight for the For The People Act can be won. Democrats are reportedly nearing an agreement on a revised version of the bill — one that will firmly unify the caucus. And moderate senators are increasingly arguing that filibuster reform may be necessary.
“There is a path ahead toward passage of the For The People Act,” Michael Sozan, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told us. “That path may be winding and dangerous at times, but there is a route to the summit. People have to remember that transformative legislation is never enacted easily; just think of the Affordable Care Act or the Voting Rights Act, for example.”
Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy coalition, echoed this sentiment: “We are closer to passing comprehensive voting rights legislation than we’ve been in decades, and Leader Schumer made it clear that the For the People Act will be the top priority when they return from the August recess — and we need to hold him to it.”
Passing the For The People Act would be a monumental achievement. The bill would ban congressional gerrymandering, establish strong federal standards to ensure the freedom to vote (including same-day and automatic voter registration, robust early voting periods, and simple vote-by-mail procedures), and create public financing for congressional elections. In no uncertain terms, the bill would bring us closer than we’ve ever been to a government of, by and for the people.
For this reason, the House adopted the For The People Act in March with near-unanimous Democratic approval, and President Biden called passing it a “national imperative.”
Beyond providing hope for the future of our democracy, the flurry of recent activity — by grassroots activists and those inside the halls of Congress — is a stunning rebuke to political pundits who have spent months declaring the bill dead and questioning whether it was ever a politically realistic avenue for strengthening democracy.
The naysayers have routinely pointed to the supposedly immutable Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and the insurmountable filibuster as proof that the bill is a waste of time. Yet, they ignore the grassroots activists who are doing everything they can to keep the bill alive — with tangible success. Activists brought Manchin back to the negotiating table after he initially announced his opposition to the bill, and have been increasingly lobbying against the filibuster to build pressure to reform it. And now, the bill has renewed momentum and a chance at passage.
“The pundits have been consistently and embarrassingly wrong in proclaiming the For the People Act dead,” Sozan said.
Among the most outspoken critics of S. 1 is Nate Cohn of the New York Times, whose Twitter feed is but a neverending tally of why he thinks activists pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into fighting for the bill are wasting their time — or, worse, being negligent. He has not only written off the For the People Act and the movement to pass it as “totally unserious” but also postulated that the egregious anti-voter laws under consideration across our country are not urgent threats to democracy.
It’s not just Cohn, though. The Beltway press adopted futility about the For The People Act as if it were fact. An episode of the NYT’s The Daily asked, “What lessons can we take from [the For The People Act’s] demise?” Vox declared that S. 1 was “doomed.” Politico Playbook, before the June vote that was filibustered by the GOP, editorialized that the For the People Act was simply a “messaging bill” that was “set to die” and would be killed “once and for all.” MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell once reported, with no justification, that S. 1 was “too big, too broad” and “really a talking point rather than legislation.” And just last week, The New Republic called Democrats’ voting rights push “doomed” and said S. 1 had “fizzled in the Senate” — with no mention of last week’s movement on S. 1 or the grassroots movement fighting for it.
Getting the story right matters, not only because it’s pundits’ and journalists’ job, but because it affects what happens on the ground. The more news stories that wrongfully declare a bill dead, the harder it is to mobilize people to fight for it — the declaration becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many respects, that grassroots activists have accomplished as much as they have, in such a hostile media environment, is a true testament to the strength of the movement.
The For the People Act is a crucially necessary piece of legislation, and the ills plaguing American democracy will only metastasize if left unaddressed. Our ability to confront the problems facing our nation — from the climate crisis to wealth inequality — depends upon having a functional, representative democracy where all voices can be heard.
Grassroots activists and Democratic leadership have defied the odds, kept the pressure up, and now the For The People Act is within reach. It’s critical that during the Senate recess Americans continue to raise their voices. This means pushing reluctant senators and President Biden — who has not yet taken an overly active role in the fight — to do whatever it takes to pass the For The People Act.
“The fight for civil rights has always been a tough battle, but our voices are being heard and we must continue to move forward together,” Morgan said. “In the coming months, we have the chance to ensure that our democracy and our freedom to vote is protected for generations to come, but that change will require unrelenting pressure from the American people to force action by our elected leaders. We cannot stand down.”
As activists rise to the moment, one can only hope that the pundits will finally begin covering this fight fairly. Our democracy is far too important to blot with undeserved cynicism and haughtiness.
Mahnoor Imran is an Equal Citizens Fellow.
Adam Eichen is Executive Director of Equal Citizens and coauthor of Daring Democracy (Beacon Press, 2017)