Jan. 6, 2021, was a terrible day for our democracy. I was at the U.S. Capitol complex, and it was not simply a “protest,” as some revisionists try to claim. In an attempt to block the certification of a free and fair election, hundreds of rioters attacked police, injuring more than 100 officers. Five people lost their lives that day, and in the days that followed, four officers who responded to the attack took their own lives.
I am grateful to Officers Eugene Goodman, Harry Dunn, Michael Fanone, and all who fought back against the attackers that day. The officers protected more than lawmakers and staff — they protected your democracy.
Many of the rioters have been criminally charged for their actions that day, and some have already pleaded guilty. This is fitting, and the accountability must not stop there. I am pleased that my colleagues who serve on the bipartisan Jan. 6 committee are continuing to dig to bring more of the truth to light.
One year later, I’m more focused than ever on what we must do now to protect our democracy from further partisan attacks. We must keep Americans’ votes — particularly voters of color — from being suppressed, and make sure every vote is counted. Attempts to block or overturn valid votes did not end a year ago. They are continuing at the local and state level in several places around the country, and we must have a sense of urgency about this. Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto has blocked voter suppression attempts in Pennsylvania, but his term ends in a year. You deserve enduring protections that do not depend on any one official.
That’s why, in the last 12 months, House Democrats have fought hard for legislation that protects everyone’s sacred right to vote. But there’s one roadblock we keep running up against: the filibuster. It’s past time for the Senate to make a key exception to the filibuster that would enable Congress to enact additional voting-rights legislation.
We need this protection more than ever, as the assaults on our democracy have not abated. They didn’t even pause on Jan. 6 — after the rioters had been cleared from the building, I left my secure location to go to the House chamber so I could speak out against an attempt by many House Republicans to throw out Pennsylvania’s votes. Thankfully, they failed. But it remains a disgrace that they tried this just hours after the deadly attack.
In the U.S. House, we have kept up our efforts to protect our democracy. In March, we passed the For the People Act, which would make it easier to vote and protect voters against wrongful purges of their registrations, among other safeguards. Senate Democrats have put forth a similar bill, the Freedom to Vote Act. And in August, the House passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for my late colleague who risked his life as a young man for African Americans’ right to vote. It would restore Voting Rights Act protections that the Supreme Court has been eroding in recent years.
Now it’s up to the Senate. And that’s where the trouble lies.
Senators have increasingly relied on a filibuster to doom bills they don’t like. As a result, very little passes without a “supermajority” of 60 votes — meaning a minority of senators can hold bills hostage at their whim. To get around that, the Senate has made more than 160 exceptions that let certain types of legislation or confirmations pass with just a simple majority, no filibuster allowed.
Still, even with these exceptions, this “Swiss cheese filibuster” currently blocks senators from voting on legislation to protect our most basic right to vote, even as state legislators have passed anti-voting and anti-vote-counting laws on simple majority votes. It is past time for senators to untie their own hands on such a core constitutional matter.
Sen. Pat Toomey and the four other retiring Republican senators have a unique opportunity to put country over party and help to protect American democracy for all of us, regardless of party. They must help make an exception to the filibuster for any legislation related to civil rights, including legislation that protects voters of color. With this exception in place, a simple majority is needed to pass legislation; with a 50-50 split, Vice President Kamala Harris can cast the deciding vote.
The Senate must act with urgency. State anti-voting laws are already being passed, filing deadlines for this year’s elections are passing or approaching, and conspiracy theorists are getting on local election and certification boards. There is no time to waste.
Rep. Dwight Evans represents Pennsylvania’s Third Congressional District in Philadelphia.