There’s been a lot of talk about reforming or eliminating the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation.
To catch you up, we put together this email explaining everything you need to know about the filibuster, its origins, and why it must be eliminated:
First, what is the filibuster?
The filibuster is a Senate rule that requires 60 votes (a super majority) for ‘most’ legislation to get a vote in the Senate.
We say ‘most’ because numerous exceptions to the filibuster already exist. Since 1969, 161 exceptions to the filibuster’s supermajority requirement have been created. Now civil rights advocates are asking for another exception to be created so critical voting rights legislation can pass the Senate.
What is the history of the filibuster?
The filibuster is not by design, it was actually a mistake. Like the House, the Senate used to only require a simple majority — or 51 votes. Then, in 1805, the Senate was doing a clean-up of its rule book and took out the simple majority rule because they thought it was redundant — effectively it went without saying, how else would a democratic body operate?
It took decades for obstructionists to realize the unintentional gift they’d been given and start exploiting it, often to the detriment of civil rights. The longest continuous filibuster debate in Senate history was about passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act1 to end racial discrimination in public accomodations. During the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras, senators used the filibuster to block other major civil rights legislation, including measures to prohibit lynching and end poll taxes.2
What happens if we don’t reform the filibuster?
We’re facing another era of anti-democratic reforms. The last presidential election had the highest turnout in U.S. history, and Republican elected officials responded with a wave of new voting restrictions — 19 states passed 33 laws restricting voting laws in 2021 alone, including restrictions aimed at making voting more difficult. In Georgia, you can now be charged with a crime for handing out water or snacks to voters waiting in line at the polls, and in Texas election officials could face criminal prosecution if they encourage voters to request mail ballots or regulate poll watchers’ conduct.3
There is a bill in the Senate that could address some of these restrictions — the For the People Act (H.R. 1). But the filibuster is standing in the way of progress that people are demanding.
We’ll keep you posted on the rule changes and how you can help.