This week Senate Democrats suffered a crippling blow.

Wednesday night’s vote inside the Senate chamber was historic for obvious reasons now and probably some not so obvious ones that we will see come to fruition in the future. In case you’ve been avoiding political news – and I completely understand the impulse to do so – here’s a quick breakdown.

A huge headliner of the Democratic agenda since President Joe Biden was installed in office a year ago has been voting rights. After the 2020 election, many states with Republican majorities in state legislatures passed voting laws that supporters of those bills say tightened up voting security and made elections more secure. Those in opposition saw those same bills as a way to legalize voter suppression and make it harder for people to vote, particularly people of color and those with lower socioeconomic status.

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After these laws were put into effect in a number of states, Democrats took the issue into their own hands on a national level. Two bills were put before the Senate this week: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

The John Lewis Act was an attempt to reverse a 2013 Supreme Court decision that took issue with some segments of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1965, states that had a history of voting rights discrimination were mandated by the court to get Department of Justice clearance before they were able to make any changes to voting laws. That’s the part the Supreme Court overturned in 2013.

The John Lewis Act meant to reinstate that requirement and reconfigure which states had to get clearance. It also made states subject to a federal clearance in order to change any voting law, make voter ID requirements stricter, or change the location of polling places.

The Freedom to Vote Act was much broader.

The big takeaways from the bill were an Election Day holiday, same-day voter registration, no-excuse vote by mail, a two-week early voting period that included nights and weekends, and a host of other voting measures dealing with things from partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts to a limit on the use of “dark money” by political action committees.

Given the state of our politics today, this was never going to get Republican support. So Democrats took the nuclear option.

The thought was that if they could change the Senate rules of the filibuster, then the Senate would be forced to vote once opposition speeches from the floor were over. At that point, the bill could be passed with only a simple majority vote instead of the 60 votes required by the filibuster.

The catch was that the Democrats couldn’t get the votes they needed to change those rules. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema joined the Republican senators and the vote failed, 52-48.

With the failure to change the rules, the John Lewis and Freedom to Vote Acts were dead in the water.

Most of us just woke up on Thursday morning unaware that a pretty important thing had just happened in the Senate. The defense of the filibuster, argued by some, including Manchin and Sinema, to be essential to bipartisan compromise, is a pretty big deal. In theory, it keeps one party with only a simple majority from running roughshod over a large minority.

Here’s the thing: A piece of legislation so sweeping in its reform and so clearly partisan from the outset was never going to see the light of day. Banking on two moderate senators to go against the stance they’ve openly defended for months in order to make an historic change to Senate rules seemed like a desperate grabbing at straws.

For all the push behind these Acts, most everyone knew it wasn’t going to happen.

The comprehensive legislation though, broken down into its component parts, reveals at least one voting issue that is long overdue – so much so that it should become a bill in its own right.

Election Day should be a national holiday.

The right of every citizen to vote is foundational to democracy. That foundation is built upon one very important thing – access. By making Election Day a national holiday, people are freed up from work obligations in order to exercise their right to vote without the penalty of taking time off work.

It’s a pretty straightforward step toward finding the compromise that Manchin and Sinema claimed to be protecting when they shut down the Senate rule change.

American voter turnout is low – much lower compared to other democracies. Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Costa Rica, even Mexico, all have time off for voting or universal voting that moves their turnout numbers much higher than the U.S. achieves. Australia has consistent voter turnout at over 90 percent.

And we should want higher voter turnout. Representative democracies are predicated on the idea that we are most aptly represented when everyone participates. The legitimacy to govern, the reason that we can trust lawmakers to do what is right, is because we have given them our consent to make the rules that tell us what to do.

We should want everyone to participate in that consent. It’s what makes us different from autocratic or oligarchic nations. It’s not just the elite who get a say. Everyone does.

By making Election Day a national holiday and opening up the opportunities for more people to participate and take civic action, we are making our democracy stronger. People don’t have to choose between work or voting. If it takes all day to stand in line (which it shouldn’t, but that’s a different column), then they have all day to do it.

And if they choose not to, it won’t be because they had to choose between their job and their civic participation.

That isn’t partisan. It’s democracy.

Cortney Stewart is a 2003 graduate of Lecanto High School. She has bachelor’s degrees in political science and international affairs, a master’s degree in intercultural studies and is currently working on her Ph.D. in international conflict management. She most recently spent two years teaching and training students, teachers and government officials in Baghdad, Iraq. Email her at seeing beyondccc@gmail.com.

(1) comment

SHC

I also support making Election Day a national holiday, but doing so wouldn't remove the barrier to voting for lots of people, particularly folks who work in retail and food service businesses that stay open during most other national holidays. Those people also tend to be lower income voters, which are among the voters targeted by unnecessary restrictions to ballot access that are being passed in so many Republican-run states, including Florida.

If an Election Day holiday had the level of business closures as Christmas vs. a more lightly observed holiday like President's Day, it would make more of an impact. But let's face it, there's no way 10 Republicans in the U.S. Senate would support a national holiday for Election Day either. They rely on voter suppression because they've got no ideas to sell other than culture war B.S.

Last point: congressional Democrats weren't "banking" on Manchin or Sinema's vote. Everyone knew what was going to happen in advance. What they were doing was signaling to the base that they will engage in an all-out fight to protect voting rights and make every lawmaker who opposes those bills go on record, Democrat or Republican. That was worth doing, in my opinion.

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