Bipartisanship is a worthy goal, but not if it means nothing gets done

February 11, 2021 12:27 pm

U.S. Sen Kyrsten Sinema speaks at the 2019 Update from Capitol Hill hosted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

One cannot utter the term “maverick” in Arizona without thinking of former U.S. Senator John McCain. McCain prided himself on being able to buck the system — and his party — whenever he felt it necessary to move good legislation across the finish line or keep bad legislation from becoming law.

Some political consultants and reporters have also used the term maverick to describe Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

Like McCain, Sinema claims to be “independent-minded.” She views herself as a moderate and bipartisan consensus builder. And while I admire someone willing to work across the aisle and take votes based on principle versus party pressure, I’m starting to wonder if Sinema’s talk of independence is more about maintaining an image than it is about getting stuff done.

Take voting rights as an example.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the preclearance portion of the Voting Rights Act, which mandated jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination receive federal approval before implementing any changes to voting rules.

Since the court’s ruling, states that were under a preclearance mandate (which included Arizona) have worked overtime to disenfranchise those they deem “undesirable voters,” generally voters from demographics that favor Democrats, such as minorities, younger voters and low-income folks.

Disenfranchisement took on new urgency in our state after November, when Republicans lost at the top of the ticket and barely clung to their majorities in the state legislature.

Our state Capitol is now steaming with the stench of desperation as Republicans introduce one bill after another to make it more difficult to vote early and by mail.

These bills range from purging voters on the Permanent Early Voting List if they don’t vote often enough to implementing a type of poll tax by requiring a notary for those using mail-in ballots.

Even the right to choose our president is under attack. Republican Rep. Shawnna Bolick wants to give legislators the final say on presidential electors, regardless of whether it conflicts with who the voters chose.

If preclearance was still in effect, it’s unlikely we’d be talking about any of these bills because they’d have no hope of receiving federal approval. But without preclearance, states like Arizona have had wide latitude in passing legislation with clear discriminatory goals. 

Democrats in Congress have pushed for a revised Voting Rights Act, which would restore preclearance, as well as an even more aggressive voting rights package known as HR 1.

HR 1 would expand early voting and allow same-day and automatic voter registration. It would prohibit voter purges like the ones being debated right now in Arizona’s legislature, reduce the influence of big money, shine a light on “dark money,” and require paper ballots, among other provisions.

In essence, HR 1 and a restored Voting Rights Act would increase voter participation and implement changes a majority of voters have endorsed. But because Republicans have used disenfranchisement to their advantage and had a lock on the U.S. Senate, it’s been impossible for Democrats to pass this legislation.

Until now.

Now, Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the presidency, but they may still fall short because of the filibuster rule in the Senate, which prevents legislation from passing without 60 votes, ten more than what Democrats currently have

Sinema has said she will not vote to end the filibuster, though she’s yet to explain her reasoning. Some have suggested it’s a political calculation, a necessity to keep her bipartisan image unpolished. But if that’s the case, then I’d challenge her to show us that bipartisanship is a possibility. I’d ask her to spearhead this legislation and use her consensus-building skills to find ten Republicans willing to stand up for voters’ rights.

If she succeeds — which I hope she does — then she can prove to Arizonans there’s hope in D.C., that the Senate is capable of passing legislation in a bipartisan manner. 

But if she cannot find those votes, then she needs to explain what good she’s accomplished in bucking her party. What good comes from this legislative defeat, one that seeks to expand democracy by striking down discriminatory voting rules and making it easier to bring more voters into the fold?

Bipartisanship is a worthy goal. But not at the expense of legislative wins that further the very principles Sinema claims to endorse. Principles such as fairness and opportunity.

Real mavericks do not simply talk about being open-minded. They also take courageous votes that get shit done. And at the end of the day, it’s the latter that matters most.

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Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle

Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.