We blew past the deadline for democracy. So now what?

By Ezra Levin, Indivisible co-founder

Ezra here with an update on where things stand on the democracy fight. I hate getting emails all the time that say, “the sky is falling!” The only thing worse is blindly optimistic emails that promise victory with no believable plan or hope for achieving it. So I’m going to do my best to be direct with you — I think that’s the best way for us to strategize as a movement together.

So here’s the deal: real talk, we’ve missed a crucial deadline for democracy. For months we have been saying we need to pass the For the People Act (S. 1) before the August recess. That deadline was informed by elections experts who gave us a clear analysis: GOP states can begin gerrymandering once the census data comes out in August. If Congress fails to pass the gerrymandering reforms in S. 1 before the gerrymanders start, we’ll be in a weaker position when the GOP inevitably challenges those reforms in court.

Well, the Census data for congressional maps comes out this Thursday, and Congress went into recess today without passing S. 1 or its anti-gerrymandering provisions. That means that states like Texas, Arizona, Florida, and Georgia will all start drawing maps to gerrymander the GOP into power next year.

There’s no sugarcoating this: due to this failure to pass the bill in time, we are now in a weaker position to stop the coming GOP gerrymandering. We can still pass S. 1, but there’s a greater chance now that the courts will uphold some or all of the GOP gerrymandered maps in 2022. These are the cold hard consequences of the legislative delay.

If you are disappointed and angry at this outcome, I’m right there with you. For those of us having this emotional response, I think we have to answer three questions:

  1. What can legislation actually accomplish now? Having missed this deadline, what is possible through federal democracy legislation? Is it too late to do any good?
  2. Who do we have to win over? Another way to ask this is: which decision-makers worked publicly or behind the scenes against us getting S. 1 done before the August recess?
  3. How can we help? What can we as individuals and local Indivisible groups actually do in the coming weeks to increase our odds of winning this legislative fight?

I’ll try to answer these questions below.

What can legislation actually accomplish now?

Short version: The gerrymandering provisions are weaker, but we still have the opportunity to pass this bill to expand voting rights, get money out of politics, protect elections, and beat back GOP voter suppression countrywide.

Despite blowing through the “Deadline for Democracy,” S. 1 is still a live bill — it has not been defeated, and our allies in the Senate are not throwing in the towel. This is meaningful — a totally plausible alternative scenario for August could have been a failed attempt to end the filibuster and pass S. 1, followed by an announcement that the Senate was moving on.

That’s not what happened. Instead, this week, we saw renewed Democratic commitment to finding a path forward and renewed Republican obstructionism. Here’s how it played out:

  • All Democrats voted in favor of bringing the For the People Act to the floor for consideration. Majority Leader Schumer asked for Unanimous Consent to proceed to debate. Republicans blocked it.
  • Schumer asked for Unanimous Consent to consider a standalone campaign finance transparency bill. Republicans blocked it.
  • Schumer asked for Unanimous Consent to consider a standalone anti-gerrymandering bill. Republicans blocked it.
  • Following these votes, Schumer committed to bringing S. 1 back up as soon as the Senate comes back from recess in September.

For those Democratic senators standing in the way of eliminating the filibuster — Schumer has given them a task: find these mythical GOP votes for democracy reform, or get prepared to vote to reform the filibuster so we can pass this bill.

Let’s say we’re successful in September — substantively, what does passing S. 1 after August recess do for our democracy? As discussed above, the anti-gerrymandering provision will be weaker, but the rest of the bill will remain strong. Automatic voter registration, universal vote by mail, making election day a national holiday, election security, campaign finance reforms, and national voter protections to undo the voter suppression laws passing in GOP-led states — all of this would have a real direct impact on protecting our democracy, even if the bill is enacted after August.

There might come a day where I write to say that we simply do not have the votes to get the bill passed during this Congress or that it’s too late for the bill to impact 2022, even if we were to pass it. But that day is not today. Everyone we work with on this campaign — our own team, our allies on Capitol Hill, our partners in the advocacy community — continues to believe this is winnable and impactful. I won’t sugarcoat the challenges we face, but I sure as hell will not throw in the towel just because we’re down a few points.

Who do we have to win over?

Short version: Sinema and Manchin are only partly to blame for this delay. Carper, Coons, and possibly others should all be on your list. And President Biden should top your list — we need him to get in the game.

If you’re reading this email, you already know that Senators Sinema and Manchin have been key barriers in delaying changes to the filibuster this year. But just because those two get most of the press does not mean that those two are the only obstacles we face.

From our allies in the Senate — both staff and senators — we know that behind closed doors, there are other senators who provide Manchin and Sinema with cover for their intransigence on filibuster reform. Just last week, we learned that the two Democratic senators from Delaware, Coons, and Carper, are backing Manchin and Sinema as they delay filibuster reform discussions. There may or may not be others working to sideline democracy reform behind the scenes, so it’s not enough to just focus on Manchin and Sinema — we have to get all of our Democratic senators vocally on the side of immediate filibuster reform.

But our biggest challenge goes beyond the Senate. Our star player isn’t even in the game. We all worked our butts off last year to elect Joe Biden and get him a Democratic congress. And Joe Biden agrees with us on the stakes — he’s described Trump’s Big Lie and the avalanche of GOP voter suppression as the greatest threat to our republic since the Civil War. But while he shares our diagnosis, his team has suggested that we can simply “out-organize” the GOP vote suppression and election subversion. Carper and Coons represent his home state — a simple call from the President would be enough to remove that obstacle. But rather than use his power to move senators to save our democracy, he’s been laser-focused on using his power to move senators on infrastructure.

We see the impact he can have on the Senate when he takes up a cause — we just need to see him take up our democracy with the same zeal he demonstrates on roads and bridges.

How can we help?

Summary: Local pressure has gotten us this far. To get us to the finish line, we have to get creative about convincing key decision-makers to switch to our side.

Months into this legislative fight, we’ve shown up at rallies, town halls, marches, and campaign events. We’ve written op-eds, signed onto joint letters, and talked to innumerable journalists in radio, print journalism, and TV. We’ve garnered literally billions upon billions of impressions from our earned media. We’ve worked with allies in the civil rights community, faith community, labor leaders, climate leaders, and fleeing Texas legislators. We’ve orchestrated nationwide mobilizations, run targeted ads, and overwhelmed Senate offices with call-in days. Together, we have applied more consistent, nationwide grassroots pressure on this issue than the political system has experienced on anything else this year — and it’s not close.

But that begs the question: so what? If we failed to get this done before August recess, what has all this accomplished?

The answer is: actually, quite a lot! It was not guaranteed that the House would prioritize and pass the For the People Act in the first few weeks of this Congress. It wasn’t guaranteed that the Senate would also prioritize it and move it through the committee process with unanimous Democratic support. It was not guaranteed that the Senate Majority Leader would repeatedly declare that “Failure is not an option.” Senate institutionalists like Amy Klobuchar, Jon Tester, and Dick Durbin were not guaranteed to shift their position and embrace filibuster reform. It was not guaranteed that Senate Democratic leadership would continue to publicly push for the bill despite unified GOP opposition.

What’s clear is the main reason that the democracy fight is still alive is because of grassroots pressure. We’ve heard this at the highest levels from our allies on Capitol Hill — decision-makers who would very much rather just move on from this fight know that they can’t risk alienating the grassroots supporters who got them elected in the first place. They know they will have to go back to you soon next year and ask for support in the elections. They don’t want to piss us all off.

And they know failure on this front will piss us all off — because we’ve been open about our expectations.

Still, here we are, at the beginning of August recess with no legislative victory. As of this writing, President Biden has yet to throw his full weight into the fight, and we don’t yet have the Senate votes to reform the filibuster.

There’s no getting around it: we have to solve both these problems. Yes, of course, we need Manchin and Sinema and Coons and Carper. But we need all of our senators to be active, public champions. We need firm, public commitments from each of them to take up filibuster reform when they come back from recess. We need each of our senators to be as consistently vocal on the filibuster as Senator Padilla or Senator Merkley is just about every day. We need each of our representatives to apply as much public pressure on President Biden as Representative Mondaire Jones regularly does. Even if you don’t have a Democratic senator or representative, I guarantee you have Democratic state representatives or state senators in your state who should be signing onto this campaign — click here for instructions from Indivisible Ventura on how to ask them to do just that.

Have a drink. Watch some Ted Lasso. Get a good night’s sleep. Then rejoin the fight.

As advocates for democracy, it’s tough to be in the muddy middle of a campaign, especially after a partial setback like this. We have to balance being angry but not cynical; disappointed but not hopeless; frustrated but not powerless. To strike that balance, it helps me to understand where we are, where we need to go, and what we have the power to do. So to summarize the 1900 words you just read:

  1. Filibuster reform and S. 1 are still winnable fights, even if the Senate’s failure to get this done before August recess has real consequences that we can’t avoid.
  2. There are a set of senators who we need to get on our side, and we may not be able to win this unless Joe Biden throws his full weight into this fight.
  3. Politicians move when pushed, and it’s our job to push them.

We couldn’t take for granted that we would get this far. We can’t take for granted that we will make it the rest of the way. But the path to victory is in front of us. And if you’ll allow me one single blindly optimistic note to end on: I believe that we will win.

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