WASHINGTON — Sen. Angus King is worried about the state of American democracy.

“We are in a moment when democracy is in danger, when autocracy is on the march around the world,” King said in a recent telephone interview from the Capitol as he negotiated with his colleagues to protect voting rights and the impartiality of elections. “Our system is an anomaly in human history – the norm is authoritarians, kings and pharaohs and we are seeing (democracy) backsliding into authoritarianism before our eyes.

“The idea that it can’t happen here – that’s just not so, and that’s just what’s worrying me,” King added. “We have a lot of people who are just not committed to the idea of democracy.”

At issue is a bill – currently called the Freedom to Vote Act – that would set nationwide standards for mail-in and early voting; make Election Day a national holiday; extend financial reporting requirements for certain organizations; create a standard for states that require identification to vote; restore voting rights to felons on their release; require that voting machines have paper trails and protect local elections officials from being removed for partisan reasons. (Almost all of these measures are already in place in Maine and so would have little effect here.)

King said the protections the bill would provide for American democracy are so critical he is ready to support something he’s long opposed: reforming the filibuster so the measure can’t be blocked by the Republican minority in the U.S. Senate.

King’s Republican colleagues have dismissed the warnings of King and others, saying the bill is an overreach by Democrats. And Maine’s senior senator, Republican Susan Collins, called the rhetoric “harmful alarmism” that is itself a threat to public trust in American elections.

It’s not hard to understand King’s concern.

This year a president refused to recognize his electoral defeat, pressured election officials to “find” him votes, and directed tens of thousands of supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol, where they breached the building, beat police officers, and forced Congress to evacuate as they were ceremonially ratifying the certified election results. 

In the months that followed, Republican-controlled state legislatures in Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin and Georgia have moved to make voting more difficult or to put more control of election oversight and certification in the hands of legislators or other partisan actors. Bills introduced in Texas and Arizona would allow a simple majority in those states’ (currently Republican-controlled) legislatures to throw out the popular vote and choose their own Electors.

Polls show the majority of Republicans believe a lie promulgated by former president Donald Trump and his political and media allies that he won the 2020 election (but that Republican victories on the very same ballots are legitimate.)

In October, King – an independent former two-term governor of Maine who caucuses with the Democrats – gave a pointed speech on the Senate floor where he denounced the ongoing effort to undermine trust in elections and to use it as a pretext to change the results of future ones.

“No election, no endorsement, no Senate seat, no presidency is worth it,” he said of the Republican-led disinformation campaign against trust in elections. “Nothing is worth destroying what our forebears fought and died for. Nothing.”

The stakes have led the senator to back something he’s long opposed: reforming the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to end debate on a bill (which can then pass with a simple 51-vote majority.) Until 1806, debate could also be ended with a simple majority and the current 60-vote threshold wasn’t adopted until 1975.

“I am very reluctant to make any change, but I draw the line at democracy itself,” King said during a recent interview. “If we were having a debate about a policy issue I wouldn’t be engaged in this discussion. But what is going on now in the country is to me structure, not policy, and if we allow the structure of our democracy to be modified to the point where democracy itself is diminished, we’re sunk.”

Members of the House passed their version of the election reform bill in March, but the Republican minority, who are one senator shy of controlling the chamber, has blocked the Senate version three times from even being debated. Only one of the 50 Republican senators – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – voted in support of advancing the current version of the bill.

COLLINS DISMISSES CONCERNS AS ‘ALARMISM’ 

After voting against beginning debate in late October, Collins echoed the position of minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, describing it as a “vast federal takeover” of elections in the states.

Collins declined an interview request, but in a written statement she dismissed the voting rights legislation as “an evolving grab-bag of progressive ideas and causes, many of which they were promoting prior to the 2020 election.”

She argued that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – which the Supreme Court scaled-back in a 2013 decision – was sufficient to protect against racial discrimination, and that the measures Democrats had put forward “are not the issues that will determine the fate of our democracy.”

As for concerns about the latter, she said the real threat was from “harmful alarmism” that undermined trust. “The hyperbole that has accompanied this discussion risks having the unintended consequence of further eroding confidence in our elections,” Collins said in the statement.

Collins in March warned that a Democratic push to alter the filibuster would destroy possibilities for compromise on voting rights, but she is part of a bipartisan group of senators recently convened by Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to discuss possible rule changes in the chamber.

King said Republicans have shown no interest in negotiation or compromise to find a version of the bill they’d support.

“There’s no interest on the Republican side in doing anything,” he said. “Mitch (McConnell) hasn’t come to Chuck (Schumer, D-N.Y., Senate Majority leader) to say ‘here’s what we like and this is what we don’t.’ They’re using the filibuster as just pure straight up obstruction rather than using it to advance the participation of the minority.”

He said when he speaks with his friends on the Republican side, many of them say they don’t see a threat to the republic.

“They just don’t think it’s happening and ask why we’re making such a big deal out of it,” he said. “They think this bill is really an effort to lock in democratic majorities.” 

King has for weeks been working with a group of Democratic senators to find a compromise acceptable to the party’s most conservative members, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both of whom have said they support voting reforms but not changing the filibuster. The package King is arguing for would effectively return the filibuster to what it was between 1917 and 1970, when senators were required to actually remain on the floor talking, as in the classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The talking filibuster as a practical matter is much harder to sustain. 

He said he also favored measures that would guarantee both sides the ability to add a certain number of amendments, ensuring minority influence over legislation.

Politico has reported that the informal working group, led by Tim Kaine of Virginia, is backed by Schumer and includes King and Jon Tester, D-Mont. King met Manchin on Friday to discuss the issue and also spoke with President Biden about it last week.

Schumer said Monday that the Senate would take up voting rights soon after returning from the holiday recess in early January, including the possibility of changing filibuster rules.

“If the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the state level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?” Schumer wrote.

King’s office said Monday that negotiations were continuing and King himself sounded a cautiously optimistic note regarding the tone of recent discussions with Manchin and Sinema.

“They are very reluctant for the same reasons I am – they don’t want to turn the Senate into the House, where the majority controls everything and the minority might as well not be there,” he said. “But I think a talking filibuster with amendments is a far cry from straight up majority rule. That’s the sort of compromise we’re trying to do.”


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