After six months of aggressive Republican efforts to restrict voting access, Democrats are facing new questions about how they will actually pass voting rights reforms through Congress.
The most recent hand-wringing comes as Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democratic senator, made clear earlier this month he still is not on board with the For the People Act, which would require early voting, automatic and same-day registration, and prevent the severe manipulation of district boundaries for partisan gain.
Senate Democrats, including Manchin, met privately on Wednesday to map out a path forward on the bill, which has already passed the US House. They were mostly mum about the discussions of that meeting but overall resolute that some kind of voting rights bill has to pass. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said: “It was a really productive meeting.”
Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia said: “I think members of the caucus understand the urgency and we’re focused on getting something passed. We have an obligation to the American people to find a way to protect our democracy.”
Manchin’s opposition comes at a critical moment when there is escalating concern about aggressive state Republican efforts to curtail access to the ballot. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Montana have all put new restrictions in place this year. Many see this as an existential moment for the Democratic party and fear that Republicans will permanently reap the benefits of a distorted electoral system if Democrats cannot pass federal legislation. There is heightened urgency to act quickly so that crucial protections can be in place when the once-per-decade redistricting process gets under way later this year.
“There is a ticking timebomb,” said Wendy Weiser, the director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which supports the bill. “It will be a significant failure if [Congress] doesn’t pass these two pieces of major voting legislation. It will be a significant failure for the country, for the American people … I don’t think Joe Manchin wants that on himself.”
Manchin is concerned the bill still does not have enough Republican buy-in, and favors an alternative piece of legislation that would reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and require election changes to be pre-approved by the federal government. Some observers say that solely passing that bill, named the John R Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would be inadequate to undo the suppressive laws that have gone into effect and that trying to get bipartisan support for the measure is a fool’s errand, given the Republican party’s embrace of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Senator Mitch McConnell has also taken a personal interest in trying to sink the bill, saying it would be devastating to Republicans, McClatchy reported earlier this month.
The West Virginia senator’s concern highlights an even bigger question looming over the Democratic party – how to pass any priority legislation with only, at best, 51 votes in the Senate. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, has set August as a deadline for passing a voting rights bill – a deadline the White House has embraced.
Schumer has repeatedly said “failure is not an option”. But absent a shift on eliminating the filibuster, a procedural rule in the Senate that requires 60 votes to advance legislation, failure seems to be the most likely option, the Washington Post reported. Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another Democrat who does not support eliminating the filibuster, bluntly asked the caucus what the plan on the legislation was earlier this month.
“The goal of the authors is to get it signed into law. I don’t see a path,” one Democratic senator vented to Politico.
In the past few months it seemed like a showdown over the filibuster would come on a voting rights bill. Now, though, some Democrats think that showdown may come over a vote on a 6 January commission to investigate the mob attack on the Capitol. In both cases Democrats don’t seem to have the votes to overcome a filibuster which would spur a showdown.
“Part of what I’ve heard is let’s not race to abolish or even reform the filibuster rule because frankly there hasn’t been a ‘casualty on the floor of the Senate’,” said Senator Alex Padilla of California, a former top elections official in his home state. “There’s no bill this session that has died because of the filibuster rule. So what might it be that breaks the filibuster’s back? Is it the infrastructure package? Is it the voting rights bill? Is it a climate change bill?”
Manchin’s comments are being closely watched because Democrats cannot afford to lose his vote – or that of any other senator – since they control only 50 seats in the Senate. Manchin has said he does not favor getting rid of the filibuster.
But outside groups supporting the For the People Act say they are unfazed by Manchin’s recalcitrance. They remain optimistic that he will eventually come around to support it.
“Reports of the bill’s death are very premature. It is still the priority for Democrats in Congress,” Weiser said.
“We remain optimistic about the path forward for this bill,” said Tiffany Muller, the president and executive director of End Citizens United/Let America Vote, which is backing a $30m effort to support the bill.
Manchin has pointed to a reauthorization of preclearance requirements as a better way to protect voting rights than a sweeping voting bill. Last week, he released a letter with the Republican senator Lisa Murkowski calling on Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, including the preclearance provision gutted by the US supreme court in 2013. “Inaction is not an option,” they wrote.
That letter was a “glimmer of hope”, said Padilla.
“All the more reason to continue to make the case not just in Senate chambers but in the court of public opinion across the country,” he added, stressing that Democratic efforts to engage in genuine debate would address Manchin’s concern that a real attempt at bipartisanship should be made.
Voting groups say it would be a mistake to only pass a voting rights reauthorization. While current proposals would only require certain places with documented evidence of voting discrimination to be subject to preclearance, Manchin told ABC he thinks every state should have to get its voting changes preapproved. Republicans are unlikely to support such an idea. “That’s just not actually in the cards,” Weiser said.
“It’s a false choice. It has to be both,” said Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public policy and government affairs at Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “They’re both critically important pieces of legislation and it’s a false choice to say I’m for the other and not for this. Because only together will we fully rebalance the state of voting in America to favor access.”
Four House Democrats sent a letter to colleagues last week making a similar argument.
Advocates are heartened by polling that shows the measure is extremely popular and the fact that Democrats have held together so far and brought the bill to the verge of a Senate floor vote despite some grumbling from their own caucus.
“What you’re seeing is a commitment to a floor vote and getting people on record,” Spaulding said.
If Democrats went into the 2022 midterms without doing anything to protect voting rights, it would be disastrous, advocates said.
“Voters showed up in record numbers to choose new leadership. There were commitments made across multiple Congresses on both bills and so saying ‘we tried’ isn’t going to work,” Spaulding said.
“If these bills weren’t to go to President Biden’s desk, they’d have … to articulate why they did nothing when they had the power to do so.”