Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA)
Democracy is in peril. Though it has yet to fully register as the national story it deserves to be, America is currently in the throes of what may well be the most concerted effort at voter suppression and discrimination in living memory. Since the beginning of the year, Republican state legislators have introduced a deluge of new laws intended to restrict voting, suppress traditionally non-Republican constituencies, and overturn election results. These laws represent the greatest assault on voting rights since the end of Reconstruction. If you look at the number of bills introduced, the number of bills passed, and the intensity of the effort behind it, I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Many of these efforts were blocked under the Voting Rights Act — and since the Supreme Court gutted it in 2013, voter suppression has gotten worse. But this seems to be the worst it’s been in the past decade.
It’s not like this is the first time there have been efforts to suppress the vote, but we are seeing a greater number of efforts at suppression, more restrictive bills than before, and more intensity within the Republican party to pass them. On a national level, Republicans in Congress refuse to support the For the People Act (also known as H.R. 1), which would expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, limit partisan gerrymandering, and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders. Republican know that they cannot win the majority of elections if free, fair, and accessible elections are allowed to occur. The GOP knows that they are a minority party led by extremists who fear true democracy. It is not election fraud that Republicans fear; they fear easier access to the polls. The 2020 election proved their worst fears: if people are given greater voting access, Republicans will remain in the minority. So, they are doing everything possible to make it more difficult to vote.
In addition, thirty-three states have introduced more than 100 bills that aim to curb the rights of transgender people across the country, with advocacy groups calling 2021 a record-breaking year for such legislation. LGBTQ+ people in America continue to face discrimination in their daily lives. While more states every year work to pass laws to protect LGBTQ+ people, we continue to see state legislatures advancing bills that target transgender people, limit local protections, and allow the use of religion to discriminate. With an unprecedented number of anti-LGBTQ measures sweeping through state legislatures across the country, 2021 is on the cusp of surpassing 2015 as the worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent history, according to new tracking and analysis by the Human Rights Campaign.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced last month that the Senate could take up the Equality Act, which would enshrine legal protections for LGBTQ+ Americans, in June. Still, it’s not yet clear whether the Senate will consider the House-passed bill during Pride month. The Equality Act, if passed, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, federally funded programs, credit, and jury service. The Supreme Court’s June 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, protects gay and transgender people in matters of employment, but not in other respects. The bill would also expand existing civil rights protections for people of color by prohibiting discrimination in more public accommodations, such as exhibitions, goods and services, and transportation.
Twenty-nine states do not have laws that explicitly shield LGBTQ Americans from discrimination, resulting in a patchwork of protections that vary from state to state. The Equality Act would extend protections to cover federally funded programs, employment, housing, loan applications, education, and public accommodations. In addition, the Equality Act would prevent discrimination under federally funded programs based on sex or sexual orientation, including barring discrimination by faith-based organizations that receive federal funding, such as Catholic Charities, which has refused its adoption services to same-sex couples in the past. Senator Joe Manchin, the problem child of Democrats in the Senate, is the lone Democrat who is not a co-sponsor of the bill. Manchin said in 2019 that he would not support the bill without changes, explaining at the time that he was “not convinced that the Equality Act as written provides sufficient guidance to the local officials who will be responsible for implementing it, particularly with respect to students transitioning between genders in public schools.” I personally believe that any tax-exempt faith-based organization that involves itself in politics, then it should lose its tax-exempt status. Politics and discrimination have no place in religion, and it is time for religious institutions to realize this. Furthermore, I don’t believe any political and partisan organization should be tax-exempt. If you’re non-partisan and don’t discriminate, then you can have tax-exempt status.
The protections offered by the Equality Act are broadly popular among most Americans. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 76% of Americans support protections for LGBTQ+ Americans from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodation. Although support is stronger among Democrats and independents, the poll found that most Republicans, 62%, also support anti-discrimination laws. Advocates argue that given the popularity of anti-discrimination measures even among Republicans, senators from GOP-dominant states should vote with their constituents on the issue. However, we have found out from the Republican Party that they do not care about the majority of their constituents. They want to restrict access to the ability to vote, especially for people who disagree with them. They also do not care what even those who largely agree with them want. For example, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 without a single vote from a Republican, even though most Republican voters supported the stimulus bill. Even though they all voted against it, Republicans across the country have promoted elements of the legislation they fought to defeat.
The opposition to the For The People Act and the Equality Act are not the only threats to democracy. The Washington, D.C. Admission Act (and the possibility of the admission of Puerto Rico as a state) and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 would also expand democracy and safety for minorities in the United States. Republicans know that if Puerto Rico became a state, it would likely add five members with full voting rights to the House of Representatives and two members to the Senate, which would likely result in an almost guaranteed seven electoral votes in a presidential election. Since the House of Representatives is limited to 435 members under the Reapportionment Act of 1929, Minnesota, California, Texas, Washington and Florida would each lose one electoral vote. Washington, D.C. would likely get one Representative, giving it three electoral votes, which are also almost guaranteed to be cast for the Democratic nominee in a presidential election.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021would hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct in court, improve transparency through data collection, and reform police training and policies. To me, the most essential provision of this bill is that it will establish a federal registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions. Currently, there is no such registry. As a result, if a law enforcement officer does something that warrants misconduct and disciplinary action and is dismissed from one department and applies for another, there is no way to know why they left their former employment. Furthermore, nothing requires their former employer to report misconduct to a new employer. In fact, current laws discourage a former employer from making any statements that might be seen as derogatory about their former employee.
To get any of this done, the Senate must reform or get rid of the filibuster. The filibuster is an archaic rule that the House of Representatives did away with in 1888. By the way, it was Republicans who ended the filibuster in the House. Democrats tried to bring it back in 1891 when they regained control, but Republicans used the reinstated filibuster to such frustrating effect that Democrats had no choice but to re-abolish it two years later. Opponents of abolishing the filibuster in the Senate often claim that the filibuster was part of the original design of the Senate. It was not. In fact, the traitor Aaron Burr introduced the idea of the filibuster in the Senate in 1805, and the Senate enacted it in 1806. But no Senator used it until 1837, when it was used for the first time.
The Senate has been a problem to democracy from its beginning. The so-called “Great Compromise” (aka the Connecticut Compromise) was never popular with our Founding Fathers. It passed at the Constitutional Convention by one vote, 5–4–1. If we are talking about majority will, this was not a good example. Those five state delegations voting in favor did not represent most state delegations because 12 states sent delegates to the convention. Although there were thirteen states, Rhode Island did not send any delegates. The Senate has always been an elitist institution. State legislatures initially chose senators, but that ended in 1913 with the Seventeenth Amendment, which established the direct election of United States senators in each state.
The Senate’s operations result in partisan paralysis due to its preponderance of arcane and undemocratic rules. The Constitution specifies a simple majority threshold to pass legislation, and the filibuster is mentioned nowhere in the document. Representation in the Senate is not proportional to the population and is “anti-democratic” and creates “minority rule.” The Senate, like the rest of the U.S. government, does not represent minorities well. The approximately four million Americans that have no representation in the Senate (in the District of Columbia and U.S. territories) are heavily African and Hispanic American. D.C. and the territories at least have nonvoting delegates in the House. While we cannot get rid of the Senate, it is the most undemocratic institution in the American government, followed closely by the Electoral College. Reforms are desperately needed, and the laws mentioned above need to be enacted at all costs. We are guaranteed just under two years to have a majority in both houses of Congress. Someone needs to get Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both of whom have frustrated Democrats with their defense of the filibuster. The Senate has to be made more democratic, and while the Seventeenth Amendment was a start, more needs to be done to promote equality in America.