2020 Election Data, the Filibuster, and the Future of the Democratic Party

Now that the dust has settled from 2020, both parties are looking back to inform strategy for the midterm elections and beyond. The data is clear — the shift away from the status quo of centrism to full-on base mobilization has come to fruition.

As polarization has increased, more and more swing voters have sorted into a party. Swing voters are now estimated to be the smallest portion of the electorate in recent history, which has led campaigners to look elsewhere for support. Savvy organizers like Stacey Abrams have noted this shift, and have completely refocused efforts towards recent non-voters, as they make up a much larger audience and tend to be easier to identify.

This is why 2020 marks a complete refocus towards the non-voter. While the voting eligible population only rose by 4% since 2016, votes rose by 16%, the difference being made up of at least 14 million 2016 non-voters who decided to participate in 2020. With unprecedented success in turning out this elusive segment on both sides of the aisle, the core question has changed from how to sway undecideds to how to mobilize those who recently have not participated.

Shifting From Swing Voters to Non-Voters

Non-voters made up a third of the electorate in 2020 at 80 million people, more than five times the estimated number of swing voters. In fact, 2020 non-voters amounted to more than the winning party won by in every electoral market except for DC and Vermont. If non-voters were a political party, they would have won twelve states.

This includes Texas, which Republicans won by just under 700 thousand votes but saw more than 7.4 million sit out. In Georgia, Biden won by just 12 thousand votes while 2.4 million did not participate. Such a massive pool of untapped voters indicates the potential for change with both parties’ recent success in increasing turnout.

With so many potentially election-deciding markets up for grabs, the left faces an enormous uphill battle in 2022 and beyond. While Democrats struggle to restore faith in the system, Republicans are fighting against democracy itself. On top of an existing inherent Republican advantage in the Electoral College and the Senate, the GOP is fighting voraciously to prevent free and fair elections. In what is only the logical outcome of an attack on American elections going back the last half-century, Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was rigged was met overwhelmingly with Republican support.

If non-voters are key to winning elections and Democrats are the only party investing in government, then the only route forward is through legislation.

This leaves Democrats in a tough place, as non-voters predictably have little faith in government already. Both parties have proven to be competent in mobilizing recent non-voters, but Democratic promises require real change whereas Republicans tend to win in the status quo and increasingly with cultural grievance. If non-voters are key to winning elections and Democrats are the only party investing in government, then the only route forward is through legislation.

Driving Faith in Government Through Legislation

Even with a Democrat-controlled House and Senate, the Biden administration is already experiencing profound challenges to passing its agenda. The main blocker is the Filibuster, the seemingly unintended result of a rule change in Senate procedure in the early 1900s.

Unlike in the House of Representatives where a simple majority vote of 51% is the threshold needed to pass almost any legislation, the Filibuster makes it so 60% of votes are needed in the Senate. Thus, if a majority party cannot meet this threshold, the minority has the ability to block almost anything from becoming law. Supporters of the Filibuster claim that it encourages compromise through bipartisan cooperation, but this has proven not to be the case time and time again, as rather than debating bills, the Filibuster enables the Senate minority to prevent discourse from happening in the first place.

There is one exception to the Filibuster that allows the Senate to pass budgetary changes with only 51 votes through the Budget Reconciliation Process. Critics of this rule point out that it is relatively arbitrary what is considered part of the budget, and by default it provides higher barriers to social and institutional changes than economic ones. Scrutiny has increased on the arbitrary nature of this rule with the recent striking down of the $15 minimum wage in Biden’s stimulus package, which for many was arguably a budgetary change that should have been eligible to go through Reconciliation.

Since a Filibuster by the minority party can derail any non-budgetary legislation from the majority, its use has skyrocketed from an average of less than one per year before 1970 to over 250 in the 2019–20 Congress alone. The number of bills passed has fallen in a similar trend as they become less and less likely to survive the sixty vote majority. This reinforces the cycle of government frustration, as elections are resulting in fewer outcomes as the Filibuster has risen in prominence.

All Roads Forward Lead Through the Filibuster

The gigantic catch is that the Filibuster rule can be overridden with a simple 51 vote majority. Though commonly referred to as the ‘nuclear option’ by skeptics on both sides of the aisle, killing the Filibuster seems feasible with Dems’ current standing, and both Senate Majority Leader Schumer and now President Biden have voiced support for altering the rule.

This could take a number of forms, from creating more of a penalty for using the Filibuster, to removing it from procedure entirely. Any of these routes would be feasible with a simple majority of 51 votes, so it’s more a question of the will of the Democrats than how it might be possible.

Republicans are expectedly warning opposition, but Mitch McConnell himself has already taken significant steps to neuter the filibuster. With a rich history of overriding precedent when it’s in his favor, there is also no guaranteeing that McConnell won’t override the Filibuster on his own accord the likely next time he is in power.

In the Trump Era, the Republican Party proved not only to have a disinterest in Democracy, but a growing opposition to it. As the American authoritarian party drifts further and further away from the founding ideals of the country, the institutions are more vulnerable than ever. The stakes are no longer a single election or even the next few to come, but instead the entire Democracy and faith in it as a government system.

With the survival of our Democracy on the table, winning over disillusioned eligible voters is an absolute imperative. The filibuster is the single greatest obstacle to winning these voters, and the Biden Administration must push as hard as they can to remove it. If Democrats do not aggressively legislate to prove to Americans why they should believe in government, we are doomed to a cycle of empty promises that ultimately die at the hands of the minority party.

Devin is a progressive data geek in Brooklyn, NY.