Jan. 23—With the future of democracy in America up for debate, Sen. Susan Collins let us down.
On Wednesday, she and her Republican colleagues blocked a vote on two bills that would have protected the right to vote, which is under attack in states controlled by Republican legislatures and governors.
It was the fourth time in less than a year that Collins joined a filibuster to stop this legislation. Unlike the first three times, however, they couldn't prevent it from being discussed at all and senators debated into the night.
When Collins finally took the floor Wednesday, it was not to argue the merits of the bill but to scold Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, who had embarrassed her earlier in the evening. Ossoff read a quote that had come from her own lips in 2006, when she and a unanimous Senate had supported reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act.
Collins said it was "sad" that her Democratic colleague would question her "integrity or motives" by calling attention to her evolving position. But that was not as sad as seeing Collins focus on a perceived personal slight at a moment when so much is at stake for the country.
Ossoff was absolutely correct when he pointed out that Collins and others claim to revere a civil rights icon like the late Rep. John Lewis while they vote to undo his life's work. Collins may not have liked hearing it, but it's the truth.
The Voting Rights Act became law in 1965 and has been reauthorized multiple times with bipartisan support. Among its provisions was a requirement that the Justice Department approve any changes to voting practices before they could go into effect in states and districts that had a history of racial discrimination. That provision was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 for being out of date, and Congress has not been able to agree on a modern version. Some states have taken advantage of the opportunity. Numerous studies show that Black voters wait in longer lines on Election Day and are more affected by cuts to polling places, early voting options and strict voter ID laws than the rest of the population.
Voters can still sue for violations under the Voting Rights Act, but even that was made more difficult last year by another Supreme Court decision that limits the kinds of discrimination the courts can consider. And the time it takes for a case to move through the justice system make a lawsuit a bad alternative to preventing discrimination.
After the 2020 election, in which minority turnout surged, voter suppression efforts ramped up. Fueled by former President Donald Trump's lies about widespread fraud, Republican-controlled state legislatures in Georgia, Texas and other states began passing laws that make it harder to vote, especially for people of color, the poor and those with disabilities.
Along with an update of the Voting Rights Act, which has been renamed for John Lewis, Collins and the Republicans also filibustered the Freedom to Vote Act, which would have created standards for voter registration, absentee voting, mail-in ballots, access to the polls and other guarantees that would be equally extended to all citizens in every state.
Last year, 19 states passed 34 laws that voting rights activists predict will depress turnout and lengthen lines in minority districts. Now that state legislatures are back in session and Congress has shown it won't stop them, other restrictions might be on the way.
This is a dangerous moment: Maine's other senator, independent Angus King, sees it.
On Wednesday, he said we were at a "hinge of history," noting that three-quarters of Trump supporters believe the lies and have lost faith in elections. Meanwhile, the voter suppression laws enacted in some states is sapping belief in the honesty of elections by the other side. A democracy can't survive without widespread trust in the legitimacy of elections.
"If you can't trust elections, what do you do?" King asked. "I submit that we saw it on Jan. 6."
The best answer to the antidemocratic lies are clean and transparent elections in which every voter has equal access to modes of voting that fit the demands of their lives.
Somehow Collins has misread the gravity of the situation. She defends the Senate's filibuster rule with more passion than she shows for the principle of one person, one vote. She speaks with concern for the rights of Republicans who make up the Senate's minority but not the rights of Black, Latino, Asian and other minorities who will be disenfranchised if Congress fails in its duty to protect them.
The nation has come to expect more from Maine senators, and Mainers have a right to expect more from Collins. In this historic moment, she let us all down.