The Democratic push to enhance voting rights protections failed in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday night as Republicans – including Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins – voted unanimously to block it and Democrats lacked the votes to circumvent a filibuster.

But not without an impassioned floor debate – and a rare back-and-forth exchange between Collins and a Democratic colleague – that highlighted the sharply opposing positions of Maine’s two senators, which echo the partisan divide in Congress and American society at large.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, addresses the U.S. Senate during debate on voting rights legislation on Wednesday. Image from C-Span2 video

Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, an outspoken supporter of the reforms, delivered a floor speech warning that failure to pass voting protections amounted to a threat to the survival of U.S. democracy. Shortly after that speech, Collins dismissed such concerns while defending herself from criticism lodged by Jon Ossoff, Democrat of Georgia, over her opposition.

King noted that former President Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election had convinced two-thirds of Republicans that elections are illegitimate and rigged, and added that if state legislators are allowed to suppress voters and replace elections officials with partisan activists the situation will become far worse.

“If we give them a pass today it’s ‘Katie bar the door’ over the next six months, then you are going to disillusion and anger and have loss of trust among two-thirds of the Democratic Party and independents who are going to have widespread distrust of elections as the way we solve our problems in this country,” King said. “And if you can’t trust elections, what do you do?

“I would submit that we saw it on January 6th. Those people had been told that something had been stolen from them and they couldn’t trust elections and they couldn’t trust the courts and they couldn’t trust the media. So they took the law into their own hands,” he said. “Sadly, if this continues, we will have a broad, widespread loss of trust in our electoral process and that’s when democracy starts to fall apart.”

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King’s remarks came before the vote to reform Senate rules by requiring senators to actually hold the floor and speak to maintain a filibuster. All 50 Republicans, along with conservative Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, voted it down.

King likened the stakes to those that faced the chamber in 1891 when Democrats – then the party of segregation and white supremacy – filibustered a voting rights act that would have imposed federal oversight of federal elections in an effort to prevent the disenfranchisement of African Americans via poll taxes, literacy tests, mob violence and other measures. Its failure resulted in 75 years of brutal voter suppression in the former Confederacy.

“I pray that we don’t look back on this day and realize the level of the mistake that they made in 1891,” King said.

Sen. Susan Collins AP

COLLINS, OSSOFF DEBATE

Collins spoke shortly thereafter, not about the vote before the chamber but to defend herself against remarks made earlier by Democrat Ossoff, that she and three other senators were being inconsistent in opposing this voting rights bill after having supported the reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2006. This prompted a now rare event in the U.S. Senate: an actual back-and-forth debate between two members.

In the exchange, Collins asserted that the remaining provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were sufficient to protect voters, the implication being that the Democrats’ voting rights package is unnecessary.

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The core provisions of the historic 1965 law – enacted to stop suppression of African American voters in the Jim Crow South and beyond – were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013. Articles 4 and 5 of the act had required that states with an extensive history of race-based voter suppression had to submit any changes to state electoral laws and practices to the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges for approval, a process called “pre-clearance.” But the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that such measures were no longer necessary, and a later ruling reduced the ability of federal authorities to challenge such laws in court after the fact via another part of the law, Article 2.

“The idea that somehow the Justice Department no longer has authority to challenge laws with which it disagrees or regulations or practices is simply not accurate,” Collins told Ossoff. “Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act provides that authority. It is in effect and the DOJ rightly or wrongly has invoked it” to take Texas and Georgia to court for recent changes to voting laws.

Ossoff responded that Section 2 was but a small portion of the Voting Rights Act as it stood when Collins herself voted to reauthorize it in 2006. Sections 4 and 5, which the Democrats’ legislation would have effectively restored, were vital because without them the Justice Department had to take states to court after the fact, a time-consuming process that made preventing voter suppression very difficult, he said.

“Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is important, but if section 4 and 5 were also vital when you voted to reauthorize them in 2006, why aren’t they today?” he asked.

Collins said the Democrats’ more than 700-page bill couldn’t be compared to the five-page reauthorization measure she supported in 2006.

After the exchange, which lasted less than seven minutes, Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, thanked the senators, saying it was “the most substantive exchange I’ve witnessed in more than 13 years here.”

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KING NOT GIVING UP

The Democrats’ voting rights package 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; protect local elections officials from being removed for partisan reasons; and re-establish the pre-clearance measures in the Voting Rights Act.

The outcome of the evening’s proceedings had been preordained, as Sinema and Manchin were already on record saying they would oppose changes to the way the filibuster works.

In an interview with the Press Herald on Tuesday, King said he was not giving up hope that some form of voting rights protections could pass the chamber, where the 50 Democrats need the support of at least 10 Republicans to overcome filibusters and pass legislation.

“I don’t consider this issue closed,” he said on the phone from Washington. “It may involve negotiations and it may involve further refinement of filibuster reform and it may involve some modification of the bills in order to try to generate bipartisan support, but I don’t see this subject as closed.”

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