Sinema’s speech fueled further anger from her constituents, Martin Luther King Jr.’s family, and other Democrats.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on Thursday effectively signed off on Republicans’ efforts to make it harder for Arizonans to vote and participate in elections—a bedrock of democracy that allows citizens to have a say in the quality of schools their children attend, the kind of housing they can afford, and how much they pay in taxes.
In a speech delivered on the Senate floor, Sinema said that she would not support any changes to the filibuster—a Senate rule that effectively requires 60 votes to pass most legislation—even if it meant all but killing a major civil rights bill: The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.
Tackling Voter Suppression Efforts
The bill is intended to protect the right to vote amid a wave of new voter suppression bills passed by Republican-controlled state governments. At least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting in 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
In Arizona, for example, Gov. Doug Ducey and the Republican-led legislature passed three voter suppression laws, including a measure that could purge tens of thousands of voters from the state’s early voting list. Republicans in the state also introduced three separate bills last year that would have allowed partisan officials to overturn election results.
The Democrats’ bill, supported by President Joe Biden, would make it harder to subvert federal elections, introducing a flexible voter ID measure and requiring the use of paper ballots in most voting systems. It would also ensure 15 days of early voting, expand vote-by-mail, make Election Day a national holiday, and make it more difficult for states to pass voting laws that discriminate against Black, Latino, elderly, and young Americans.
Choosing Procedure Over Policy
Sinema claims she supports the bill, but argued that reforming the filibuster and passing the bill without approval from Republicans—the same party that backed President Donald Trump’s election lies and opposes any national voting rights legislation—would only worsen political division.
“I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division in our country,” Sinema said. “Some have given up on the goal of easing our divisions and uniting Americans. I have not.”
Phoenix-area Rep. Ruben Gallego was one of those Democrats, saying it’s “past time for the US Senate and Senator Sinema” to guarantee access to democracy for “every Arizonan.”
There was at least one person who praised her speech, however: Republican Mitch McConnell, a deeply unpopular seven-term senator who repeatedly tried to take healthcare away from hundreds of thousands of Arizonans, spearheaded a tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, and stacked the Supreme Court with conservative radicals who are now gutting benefits and protections for workers.
The Legacy of the Jim Crow Filibuster
For months, Sinema has justified her defense of the filibuster by arguing that eliminating it would make it more difficult to deliver lasting change. On Thursday, she once again claimed that she wanted to “achieve lasting results for Arizona and this country”—an ironic statement, since the filibuster has historically been used to obstruct meaningful legislation, including anti-lynching bills, anti poll-tax bills, anti-discrimination bills, and multiple Civil Rights bills in the 1950s and 1960s.
During the Obama administration, Republicans ramped up use of the filibuster, blocking a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers and obstructing the president’s judicial nominations. The GOP also used the threat of the filibuster to block climate change legislation and gun safety bills.
And yet Sinema argued on Thursday that the filibuster—a tool which has been “used overwhelmingly by racists,” according to one historian—is crucial to protecting democracy.
“We have but one democracy,” she said. “We can only survive, we can only keep her, if we do so together.”
But in making this argument, Sinema put the voting rights of thousands of Arizonans at risk, thereby threatening the very democracy she claims to be defending.