Reform the Filibuster or Democracy will Die in the States

The choice facing Senate Democrats is stark: reform the filibuster or invite further democratic decline.

Charlotte Hill
Published in
5 min readMar 4, 2021


by Adam Bonica and Charlotte Hill

Tattered U.S. flag. Credit: Chris Walton, Flickr

As Democrats settle into at least two years of congressional control, there is a growing recognition that the Senate filibuster will prevent them from passing anything on their ambitious agenda, unless they can squeeze it through reconciliation—especially critically needed reforms to our democracy. A common pushback to abolishing the filibuster is that Republicans may later be able to turn the tables if they retake control of the Senate. But on issues of democracy, Republicans do not need the Senate to inflict further damage — they can deny and dilute votes in the states.

As daunting as the nation’s challenges are, there is special urgency in protecting our democracy. In early January, a violent insurrection in the Capitol Building showcased the dangerous impact of right-wing propaganda discrediting the results of the 2020 election. That same week, 147 Republican members of Congress voted to reject President Biden’s electoral votes, laying bare Republican leaders’ rejection of the democratic principle of free and fair elections in order to maintain power.

What we witnessed in the Capitol is an escalation of a longer-term trend that has played out in state legislatures across the country. Well before Trump supporters descended on the Capitol, the GOP had embraced rigging election rules as a strategy for obtaining political power — gerrymandering congressional districts in favor of Republican candidates, deploying voter purges and new identification requirements to prevent Black, Hispanic, and young voters from turning out, gutting the Voting Rights Act, and blocking new election laws that would ensure fair representation for all Americans. Millions of American citizens, including those in D.C. and Puerto Rico, have been denied full and equal representation. Expert assessments show American democracy declining on multiple measures. In the first two months of 2021 alone, state lawmakers — largely Republicans — have brought forward 253 bills that restrict voting access.

If Senate Democrats continue to allow pro-democracy reforms to be filibustered, they invite more democratic erosion in Republican-controlled states. The conspiratorial voter fraud narrative, now believed by three-quarters of registered Republicans, will further embolden GOP efforts to disenfranchise voters. These efforts are already underway in Georgia, Texas, and Wyoming. Republicans do not need control of the federal government to achieve these aims. All they require is federal inaction, which is all but guaranteed without filibuster reform.

Filibustering is an age-old political tactic in which a minority of Senators threatens to debate a bill indefinitely to keep it from coming to a vote. The majority has the power to stop this debate and move the bill forward — a process called “cloture” — but only if they can rally 60 votes in support of the legislation. The implication for the incoming Senate is clear: despite having a 51–50 majority, Democrats cannot realistically break Republican filibusters and pass their priorities into law.

A legislative rule wielded to delay or prohibit needed political reforms is not one worth keeping. For that reason, many are calling for the filibuster to be abolished altogether — including President Barack Obama, who supports filibuster elimination if Republicans use it to block pro-democracy reforms. But while the majority of Americans support this idea, filibuster abolition is unlikely to gain the support of key red-state Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who remarked in November that eliminating the filibuster would turn the Senate into a “a glorified House.”

Reforming the filibuster, rather than abolishing it, would allow Democrats to push through the most urgently needed bills while preserving minority veto power in other legislative domains — a compromise that could win over the institutionalist senators currently standing in the path of progress.

Modifying the filibuster is more feasible than eliminating it. When the cloture process was created in 1917, the threshold to end a filibuster was set at two-thirds of senators. In 1975, the Senate lowered that threshold to a three-fifths majority, or 60 senators. In 2013, the Democratic majority ended cloture requirements entirely for executive and judicial nominees, and Republicans later eliminated cloture requirements for Supreme Court nominees in 2017. Both of these recent reforms required the support of a mere majority of Senators.

If Democratic leaders cannot muster enough support to eliminate the filibuster, they should instead pass a new rule: the Senate can bypass the filibuster in cases of democracy-expanding legislation. Under such a rule — one floated years ago by election law scholar Rick Hasen — any legislation that would expand the electorate or make it easier to vote would be made exempt; voter ID laws, which impose additional restrictions on prospective voters without reducing perceived or actual fraud, would not. This simple rule change would clear the path for reforms long-advocated by pro-democracy advocates, including statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, national automatic voter registration, establishing an Election Day holiday, restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, and expanded mail in voting. Congress could even establish a federal agency to oversee free and fair elections.

Democrats in the House of Representatives have made passing a sweeping pro-democracy bill, H.R. 1, their top legislative priority — not only because they grasp the scope and severity of our nation’s political woes and strengthening our democracy will advance their strategic and electoral interests, but because they understand they have a winning argument in pushing for pro-democracy reforms. Making voting easier and more accessible is broadly popular with voters. A recent Pew study found broad majorities of both parties support such reforms. It’s also the right thing to do. There is a reason that our nation’s most celebrated historical figures are the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis: they fought to give the least powerful among us a full and equal voice in our republic. What would their legacies advise at this perilous moment?

The choice facing Senate Democrats is stark: reform the filibuster or invite further democratic decline. American democracy is in a severely weakened state, and the Republican Party’s priority is to debilitate it further. During this precious window of unified government control, Senate Democrats have an obligation to the nation to expand and reinforce our democracy; fail to do so, and they may not have another chance.

Adam Bonica is a professor of political science at Stanford University. Charlotte Hill is a Ph.D. candidate in public policy at UC Berkeley.



Charlotte Hill

PhD student at UC Berkeley studying political inequality, interest groups, and democratic reforms