An enthusiastic group of people waved signs at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven Saturday morning in protest of the filibuster. Someone yelled, “Honk for democracy!” as passing drivers honked their horns and waved to rally participants.
According to the event’s flyer, Saturday’s rally was held because “our democracy is in peril” and there are “over 350 voter suppression bills in 48 states.” The rally was led by Indivisible Martha’s Vineyard, which was created four years ago in response to then–President Donald Trump’s “oppressive” policies.
A filibuster is a legislative tactic allowed in the U.S. Senate to prolong debate and block legislation.
The rally had two purposes: protesting the filibuster and spreading awareness of the For the People Act, an election reform bill, which was recently blocked by Republicans in a filibuster, according to AP News. The rally was one of 200 filibuster protests happening around the country, according to Indivisible Martha’s Vineyard member Carla Cooper.
Flyers with QR codes that can be used to contact a person’s local senator were also passed around.
Cooper said Republican state legislators are using voter suppression tactics to disenfranchise people. The filibuster has been a “weapon” to pass “blatant” and “racist” policies in Republican-led states, according to Cooper. “They’re so mad they lost the election they’re using this big lie as an excuse to disenfranchise people, and it’s mostly people of color who will vote Democratic,” said Cooper. “In a country where voting is how you pick your leaders, it’s very undemocratic.” She listed making some addresses illegitimate for voting and signature requirements as a couple of examples of restrictive voting policies.
Cooper said the Democrats have a slight margin over the Republicans, so this is the opportunity to get the For the People Act passed. The bill was introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) in 2019, but it was blocked in the at-the-time Republican majority Senate and Senate majority leader Mich McConnell (R-KY). This was during the time when McConnell was acting as a “grim reaper” against Democratic bills. The For the People Act is currently pending a decision. According to Cooper, if the bill does not pass by September, the Republicans may be able to use gerrymandering to redistrict voters and possibly take the House in 2022. Census data is used to determine the number of representatives each state can elect, which makes supporters of the For the People Act push for faster change.
According to the Brookings Institute, there are three main ways the filibuster can be eliminated or reformed: a vote of 60 senators with support from two-thirds of the Senate, creation of a new Senate precedent, or a senator claiming a Senate rule has been violated, which can lead to the formation of a new precedent, depending on the decisions of the Senate presiding officer and other senators.
Cooper said if the elimination of the filibuster cannot be done, at least reforms such as requirements of talking filibusters, which would require a filibustering senator to do it in person, or lowering the voting threshold to 55 votes. At the very least, Cooper wants the filibuster to not be applied for policies of critical issues for the country, such as national security.
The change of the filibuster can be a “simple” matter, said Cooper in a speech. “This requires every Democratic senator to vote to change the rule.” Two Democrats in the Senate are against ending the filibuster, according to the Washington Post: Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin III (D-WV).
Caroline Miller, a 10-year resident of Martha’s Vineyard and recent mayoral candidate in Bolivar, Tenn., said there is a lot of gerrymandering in red states, and a large grassroots effort will be required to bring change. She provided perspectives about red states for the rally participants. In particular, Miller said, Democratic voters in rural Midwest and Southern states need to be encouraged toward political activity and to run for offices. “West Tennessee raised me, but Martha’s Vineyard made me,” said Miller.
The filibuster was created as a “simple housekeeping matter” in 1806 at the advice of then Vice President Aaron Burr, according to the Brookings Institute. Cooper said now the filibuster is “used as a weapon instead of a tool for compromise and bipartisanship. It’s just used as a cudgel, and as a weapon to kill legislation most of the country is in favor of,” listing the rise to a $15 federal minimum wage, gun control, and the Green New Deal as examples.
Miller also pointed out the way the filibuster was used to hinder the civil rights movement and “for the most horrific reasons ever, to perpetuate white supremacy” and that the country should have no problem ridding itself of the “unconstitutional” procedure.
Miller said there is a lot of work that needs to be done to enact change. “We almost have to be like the GOP because when they are in charge — they let everyone know they are in charge. They are unapologetic about pushing their policies and their plans, and that’s what we need to do. If the situation were reversed, we know 100 percent they would get rid of the filibuster,” she said. “We can learn a thing or two about having that sort of die-hard tenacity toward getting the work of the people done, because they know that that’s what they were put there to do.I hate to say it, but we [Democrats] can be too nice, and politics … especially when it’s such dire extremes, and sometimes it’s life and death in some situations, we have to take the gloves off, so to speak. Politics is a game, and we have to play to win.”
Miller named the barring of then President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination, Merrick Garland, by the Republicans as a show of “how they change the rules.”
The rally acted as a way to raise awareness about the filibuster and the way it is used. For those who want to learn more about the Senate and the filibuster, Cooper recommends “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy,” by Adam Jentleson.