American democracy frayed in 2021, as Republicans in states such as Georgia and Texas passed laws making it harder to vote, premised on the lie that fraud tipped the 2020 presidential election. As GOP-controlled state legislatures forced through these antidemocratic policies on party-line votes, the U.S. Senate was silent, the Democratic majority unable to respond because Republicans filibustered bill after bill to ease access to the ballot box. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced last week that he intends to change this dynamic early next year, bringing up voting rights legislation once again and taking more assertive procedural moves to advance it.
Good. Voting is not an issue like health-care policy or tax rates, on which there is reasonable debate. No senator should cheer any move to weaken minority rights in the chamber, but these specific circumstances should compel even the most traditionalist of senators to contemplate change. President Biden says he supports suspending the filibuster rules to get it done.
Neither voting bill that Democrats seek to pass should be controversial. One, the Freedom to Vote Act, would permit all voters to cast mail-in ballots in federal elections and require drop boxes. Led by former president Donald Trump, Republicans have trashed these voting methods as fraud-prone; in fact, absentee voting has a long record of convenience and security. The act would make Election Day a holiday, mandate early-voting periods, create automatic voter registration systems and provide same-day registration. It would also curb partisan gerrymandering and limit the extent to which politicians could pressure local election officials. There is no credible argument against any of these provisions, yet every Senate Republican has united against the legislation.
The other bill Democrats want to pass, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, has bipartisan buy-in — if you count that a single GOP senator, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, supports it. This bill would repair the 1965 Voting Rights Act, after the Supreme Court declared in 2013 that Congress would have to revise the law for its strongest provisions to once again apply. Crucially, it would reimpose “pre-clearance” on states with a history of racially discriminatory voting laws, obligating such states to submit proposed election rule changes for federal review before phasing them in. Pre-clearance for decades discouraged state and local officials from seeking to tilt the playing field against racial minorities, recognizing that discrimination could be as obvious as a poll tax or as subtle as a seemingly small shift in polling place locations. Immediately after the court’s 2013 ruling, Republican-controlled states began passing anti-voting laws.
Reimposing pre-clearance would make them think twice, which helps explain why nearly all Senate Republicans oppose the John Lewis bill, too. The underlying principle is that voting should be easy, convenient and fair, enabling all Americans to cast ballots without unnecessary difficulties. Over the past year, Republicans have proved that they oppose this principle, raising barriers that discourage people from voting because some calculate that more Democrats than Republicans will be suppressed. Not only is their position morally indefensible; it is not even clear it is politically sound. Republicans just claimed big victories in this year’s Virginia gubernatorial and legislative elections, amid massive turnout. Instead of seeking to depress voting, Republicans should be running more popular candidates and campaigning on more attractive policies.
Mr. Schumer should push hard to advance both voting bills. And if Republicans continue to fight them, Senate Democrats should look at reforming the filibuster.