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Here are the two fundamental questions currently facing the United States Senate: do all Americans have the right to equal access to the ballot box, and should states be allowed to override the will of their voters by donating their legislatures the power to overrule election results? .

It all started in Georgia, where the Republican supermajority legislature was upset with the Republican Secretary of State when he refused to overturn President Biden’s victory there. Arizona soon followed suit, and now there are at least fourteen Republican-controlled states enacting partisan rules that threaten the centerpiece of our democracy: free and fair elections.

There are currently Democratic-sponsored bills in the Senate that would guarantee access to polls and prevent states from allowing supporters to interfere with the counting process and overturn results that do not favor them.

Senate Republicans know that debating these issues looks bad on them: you can’t claim to be a pro-democracy supporter and at the same time advocate for undemocratic laws. What keeps these issues from being publicly aired, debated and potentially considered by the Senate is our friend the filibuster.

Consider the origin of the word. Websters: “Filibuster…came into English in the 1840s from the Spanish filibustero, which means ‘freebooter’, i.e. a pirate or looter.

A filibuster is a device used to block or stop discussion, debate and voting in the Senate. In its early incarnations, it was a rarely used tool that prevented the minority from being crushed by the majority before real debate could ensue. Its use exploded during the Obama years when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said his job was to stop Obama’s agenda and make sure he was a president. missed for one term. With the rise of the Hate Industrial Complex – think of the deceptive advertisements created and paid for by anonymous donors (current laws do not require them to disclose their identities), unscrupulous political fundraisers, cable TV pundits and to conspiracy theories on social media, which make us all hate each other, and, it’s worth adding, profit greatly from it – filibuster has gone from rarely used to constantly used: to a number in the 60s – triple digits since 2008.

What the filibuster is not is part of the Constitution. In fact, it was considered and rejected by Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton, even though Lamar Alexander, a former senator from Tennessee who presumably knew better, erroneously stated that current efforts to reform the filibuster represented “the most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them. Here is what was actually written by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper #22: Filibuster is a “despicable compromise of the public good”. The other Framers agreed, and the filibuster did not become part of the founding documents.

Joe Manchin (D-Big Coal), who also knows better, speaking to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, said: “Our founders were wise to see the temptation of absolute power and built in specific checks and balances to force a compromise that serves to preserve our fragile democracy. Let retired and serving senators not know that the Founders opposed the credulity of filibuster strains. Checks and balances, yes; in the form of a buccaneer, no.

The truth is that the filibuster was introduced decades after the Constitution was written and the country started. It wasn’t until 1841, when a dispute over the constitution of a national bank of the United States was embroiled in endless debate, that a rule change – namely filibuster – was considered.

Its initial use in the 19th century gave way to an apology for racism in the 20th century. The 1920s saw a number of civil rights bills introduced in the Senate. All were removed by the filibuster. According to Kevin Kruse, a historian of race and American politics at Princeton University, speaking to Vox said, “It’s been a tool used massively by racists.” The most famous filibusters this side of “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” were the Dixiecrats of the 1950s, at odds with their own Democratic Party and out of step with America, which used it to fight desegregation and right to vote.

Vox continues, “Jim Crow advocates pioneered this new buccaneer, successfully deploying it again and again to block civil rights bills. [The late] Richard Russell [D-GA], a prominent filibuster and staunch segregationist, said in 1949 that “nobody mentions any other legislation in connection with it”. Two political scientists, Sarah Binder and Steven Smith…found that senators’ views on filibuster reforms were closely tied to their views on civil rights: pro-reform senators tended to support civil rights bills, while anti-reform lawmakers opposed them. »

The only question left during this week when we celebrate MLK, who reminded us that it’s never a bad time to do the right thing, is whether the Senate will do the right thing and pass a modern bill on the right to vote, otherwise we are destined to repeat the past.

© 2022 Jon Sinton

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