While the Senate debated the filibuster Wednesday, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., stood on the steps of the Capitol with a group of activists holding a banner that read “Hunger Strike 4 Democracy.” The changes at issue inside the building were the Democrats’ best shot at passing voting rights reform, which could only squeak by with a simple majority. Outside the building, Bowman and the activists read the text of 33 voter suppression bills that passed in 19 states over the last year. In the same period, the Democrat-controlled Congress took up the party’s voting rights proposals five times, failing to pass them with each attempt.
By Thursday morning, when Capitol Police arrested Bowman and at least 20 other protesters, the reform’s prospects were once again dead. While Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said they supported passing voting rights legislation in theory, neither wanted to change filibuster rules to do so. The rules change failed Wednesday evening 52-48.
The failure to pass the reform represented a victory for conservative lobby groups, which have spent at least $300,000 fighting efforts to change the filibuster since last January and millions more on general advocacy against legislation to expand voting rights.
Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, led the fight against changing Senate filibuster rules while it helped write Republican voter suppression bills in numerous states, including Texas, which passed some of the nation’s strictest voting measures in September.
The Texas bill bans drive-through voting, applies new ID requirements for casting mail-in ballots, ends 24-hour voting, and expands the power of poll watchers. Heritage Action’s executive director, Jessica Anderson, told donors last year that the group wrote at least 19 provisions in the Texas law. The group has lobbied on similar legislation in at least seven other states and is poised to continue that work this year — it hired a new director for state lobbying earlier this month.
Heritage Action has worked on several such bills in at least seven other states, including Arizona, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, and Wisconsin. (Democratic governors in Michigan and Wisconsin vetoed the bulk of Republican voter suppression bills passed last year.) Last March, the group launched a $10 million campaign targeting those states with the goal to “save our elections” and work closely with state legislators and governors “to help them adopt election law reform.”
Meanwhile, the Koch-aligned Americans for Prosperity lobbied against the “For the People Act,” which would make it easier to vote, and drove a campaign to pressure Manchin to block changes to the filibuster that would allow his party to pass voting rights reform. On Wednesday night, those efforts succeeded. Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Executive Director James Edwards told The Intercept that Conservatives for Property Rights “hasn’t done much more advocacy on protecting the filibuster than signing a coalition letter or two.” Heritage Action helped lead the creation of one such letter, signed by 26 groups in January 2021, which urged senators to “carefully consider the harmful impact that one-party rule in the Senate would have on your constituents” and “reject attempts to eliminate the legislative filibuster.” Conservatives for Property Rights’ “position is that procedural matters are an aspect of property rights,” Edwards said. “These include governmental procedures that ensure republican, due process, and similar guardrails that protect citizens. Separation of powers, essential differences between the two houses of Congress, etc. are part of that.” He said the group did not have any congressional meetings specifically focused on filibuster reform but that a Senate staffer may have raised the issue during another meeting.
A spokesperson for Heritage Action declined to comment on the record. Americans for Prosperity did not respond to a request for comment.
While conservative groups have invested millions in their anti-voting rights push, liberal and Democratic groups spent just under $2 million last year lobbying specifically for changes to the filibuster — and still came up short. Some individual donors are fed up with the lack of progress, and their frustration could jeopardize funding. On Wednesday, as Sinema turned down the rules change, more than 70 donors released a letter saying they would support a primary challenge against her. They asked her to refund their 2018 contributions if she continues to block the party’s agenda.
“Donors are frustrated at the slow action of the Democrats and the Biden-Harris administration to move when it comes to voting rights at the federal level,” said Lela Ali, Georgia state adviser for the Movement Voter Project. “And also [at] the lack of action while we’re witnessing attacks at the state level.”
“The White House needs to treat ending voter suppression, gerrymandering, dark money in politics, and election subversion as [a] top priority,” said Ning Mosberger-Tang, a major Democratic donor in Colorado. “Thirty-three laws have been passed in 19 states to restrict voting access this year. … If we don’t recognize the dire threats we face and protect the very foundation of our democracy, there will be no economic or climate future to speak of. I say that as an investor and an environmentalist.”
“You’re setting up a situation where the vast majority of outcomes involve failure. And the question is, how long do you make sure failure is the central part of our agenda?”
Democrats appear to be out of options. Any hopes that Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the only Republican to support advancing a voting rights package last year, would vote to change the filibuster and support a compromise bill this session have dissolved. The compromise, backed by Murkowski and Manchin as well as Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., watered down several key provisions from the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and eliminated a requirement that courts consider photo ID laws when evaluating whether a voting practice is discriminatory. And even if the party could eventually get Murkowski on board, the compromise voting rights bill she supports might still not address the major damage already done by voter suppression bills at the state level in time for the 2022 midterms.
“It has been clear since about March of [last] year that we do not have the votes” to pass voting rights legislation, said Dmitri Mehlhorn, an adviser to major Democratic donor Reid Hoffman. “You’re setting up a situation where the vast majority of outcomes involve failure. And the question is, how long do you make sure failure is the central part of our agenda? And that failure is what everybody’s focused on?” If there are better chances for Democrats to address voting rights at the state level, that should be the party’s focus, Mehlhorn said.
With those issues in mind, the New Georgia Project — which mobilized voters last cycle on issues like voting rights, the $15 minimum wage, addressing climate change, and fighting police brutality — has encouraged major Democratic donors frustrated with the party to give instead to nonprofits working on the ground. And some groups focused on state legislative policy are pushing for renewed Democratic investment in state legislatures, where donor dollars can have a much greater impact than they do at the federal level. Democrats spent close to $40 million on the 2020 U.S. Senate race in Maine, for example, and Democratic candidate Sara Gideon still lost — with $14.8 million left over. In contrast, it cost significantly less to defend Democratic control of the state Senate after it flipped blue in 2018, said Simone Leiro, vice president of communications for The States Project, an initiative of the strategy firm Future Now, which focuses on state legislatures. The States Project “invested just $160,000 to be a top contributor to successfully defend the Maine Senate majority,” Leiro said. “We need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, investing everywhere it matters, instead of treating state legislatures as an afterthought.”
“We don’t have a demoralized or defeatist attitude,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project. “What we’re saying is, why don’t you put that into this 501(c)(3)?” As frustration grows among the Democratic Party’s base, nonprofits that work with voters on the ground, support state legislative efforts to protect voters and expand their rights, and focus on less expensive statewide races could do a lot if donors gave them the opportunity, Ufot said. “If it’s every third dollar that you give to a candidate, you give a dollar to a movement organization, we got traction with that messaging.”
“There is no path forward on the Biden administration’s policy priorities if we cannot secure the right to vote,” Ufot said. “We don’t exist to elect Democrats. … We exist to win things for ourselves and our families.” And without serious conversations about where the party is failing its voters, “it’s going to slap us all in the face.”
Correction: January 21, 2022, 4:15 p.m. ET
This story previously stated that the Maine state Senate flipped to the Democrats in 2019, not 2018.