Democrats Now Must Up the Ante on Voting Rights

An “ante” is the initial bet that everyone must put forward to be at the table. Its purpose is to ensure that all the players have a stake in the game before it begins.

In poker as in politics, the ante is essentially a show of good faith and seriousness. And in Washington, Democrats may soon be holding a very good hand if they choose to play it aggressively. That’s because it’s increasingly clear that President Donald Trump and Republican leaders will need Democratic votes for several pieces of must-pass legislation.

When they return from the April recess, Democrats must be prepared to extract their ante from the GOP: enactment of a renewed and robust Voting Rights Act (VRA).

After the GOP’s extra-constitutional obstruction of former President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland and recent obliteration of Senate rules to confirm Trump’s nominee Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, demanding the passage of a new VRA is a fitting Democratic response before providing a single vote to fund the government or raise the debt ceiling.

After all, the Shelby v. Holder decision nullifying the VRA’s pre-clearance protections was an extraordinary act of right-wing judicial over-reach by the Roberts Court that Justice Gorsuch has now joined. The ruling ensured states and jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination no longer need pre-clearance, or advance approval, for changes to voting rules.

The impact has been swift and widespread. Since that 2013 decision, 45 states have introduced more than 452 pieces of legislation aimed at suppressing voters.

States that have introduced legislation to suppress the vote since 2013.

Clearly, our democracy is in critical condition due to Shelby and the conservative assault on voting rights. And while the decision was a travesty, Democrats and progressives should now use Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion as a call to action. “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” wrote Roberts in Shelby.

Roberts’ “current conditions” standard now demands congressional action on an updated and vastly expanded VRA to address the massive growth of voter suppression since Shelby.

So, it’s time for Democrats to make a deal.

Sooner or later, Trump and the GOP leadership will need Democratic votes to fulfill the basic functions of governance. An April 28 deadline looms to pass a stop-gap spending measure followed in the fall by 2018 funding bills, then an October deadline to increase the nation’s debt limit and avoid default. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said “all of that will have to be done on a bipartisan basis,” according to the Washington Post. President Trump claims he is looking for Democratic votes for his infrastructure and tax reform legislation.

Democratic leaders on the Hill should have a simple response to the GOP’s inevitable entreaties: pass the Voting Rights Act and THEN, we’ll talk.

To put it bluntly: why should Democrats provide a single vote to fund the federal government if it is unable to protect the rights of voters to freely and fairly elect its leaders? On the debt limit, shouldn’t the full faith and credit of the United States of America to meet its obligations include an obligation to protect the franchise of its citizenry?

Democrats should approach this debate not by pleading with their Republican colleagues to do the right thing, but by demanding the restoration and expansion the VRA if they have any expectation of their vote for any critical legislation.

In fact, several congressional Republicans sponsored bipartisan legislation in the last Congress to amend and update the VRA. Democrats are now positioned to leverage stronger, modernized pre-clearance protections — such as Rep. Terri Sewell’s Voting Rights Advancement Act — onto the bargaining table.

I’m sure you’re thinking how improbable it seems for a Republican president, who has made outlandish, baseless claims about voter fraud, to sign a new VRA. And that even if it were enacted, how poorly a U.S. Department of Justice led by Jeff Sessions would enforce it or the Roberts Court would interpret it.

On the latter points, I share the deep skepticism and expect only the worst from an agency led by Sessions and a court led by the author of Shelby. But reenacting strong voting rights protections is an essential first-step, and an updated preclearance framework would be a direct response to the misguided underpinnings of Shelby.

And on Trump, we should never underestimate his desire — “bigly” — to make deals on anything, especially a matter of such great importance to the whole country that would come at virtually no cost.

Imagine the glimmer in Trump’s eye when he’s reassuringly told signing the VRA could be his “Nixon in China” moment. That “he alone” can bridge an intractable divide and heal our nation.

Maybe it is crazy. But maybe it’s possible.

We’ll find out if Democrats can leverage their strong-hand to protect voters in the coming weeks and months. In the words of Winston Churchill, appropriated by the Obama White House, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”