Manchin Lays Out His Voting Rights Priorities

[ Posted Thursday, June 17th, 2021 – 16:32 UTC ]

This has been an extraordinary week. I say that because things seem to actually be happening in Washington, which is (to put it politely) not the normal state of affairs at all. Congress even proved that, on occasion, they could move with blinding speed, as they passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday in a matter of days, instead of the usual "months, if not years." President Joe Biden has already signed the law, long before most Americans were even aware of its existence. The federal workforce will get to take tomorrow off, which just wasn't true at the beginning of the week, or even yesterday. It's long been a closely-held secret, but Congress can act this quickly, when they really want to.

There was momentous news this from the other branches of the government as well this week, as the yearly Supreme Court season produced some important decisions (the biggest of which might have been throwing out the Republican states' lawsuit to overturn Obamacare). President Biden made plenty of news on the foreign policy front, on his first trip overseas. But it's what is going on in Congress that is truly astonishing, considering their usual glacial pace.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set this all up, with an aggressive schedule of floor votes which will continue right up until they all decide to take the entire month of August off. Many of these will be contentious issues, but the one with the real built-in deadline is the voting rights package under consideration. The For The People Act already passed the House, and the Senate will vote on it early next week. The deadline involved is the once-in-a-decade redistricting of House seats which was kicked off when the Census was completed. If Democrats manage to pass the For The People Act, it will fend off the next round of partisan redistricting. If they don't pass anything, then we'll see another frenzied round of gerrymandering instead, and it'll be another ten years before Democrats will be able to do anything about it.

Senator Joe Manchin, of course, is the real sticking point. He was the only Senate Democrat who did not co-sponsor the For The People Act (known as "H.R. 1" in the House and "S. 1" in the Senate, which shows how high a priority it is for Democrats). Manchin had reservations, he told everyone, but until now the only specific complaint he had was "Republicans don't support it." This left the impression that he had no actual complaints about the bill itself, just about the partisan nature of the effort.

Perhaps to counteract this impression, Manchin has now revealed which parts of the bill he will support, which parts he will not, and what else he thinks the bill should cover. This is exactly what many other Democrats were demanding from him, so it is productive to now know Manchin's thinking on the issue. And Manchin does have some interesting positions on it all, but that's not too surprising because he has previously (in West Virginia) been both governor and secretary of state -- the official who is responsible for conducting elections. So he has personally held that responsibility before, which not every senator can claim.

Slate has a pretty good rundown of both the good and the bad in Manchin's proposal:

With new pressure on [Senator Joe] Manchin since he again backed the filibuster and stated his explicit opposition to the initial version of the For the People Act earlier this month, he finally released his counteroffer on Wednesday. It includes a number of the most important voting rights and campaign finance priorities of the original bill, including a requirement of 15 days of early voting in federal elections, automatic voter registration, limits on partisan gerrymandering, and improved campaign finance disclosure. He's also on board with extending campaign finance provisions to communications on the internet and to currently nondisclosing "dark money" groups, prohibiting false information about when, where, and how people vote, and an updated preclearance process.

Yes, Democrats should jump at the opportunity to pass such a bill, but it is also fair to acknowledge it is far from perfect. Many of the darlings in the For the People Act are not on Manchin's list, such as felon reenfranchisement, public financing of congressional elections, restructuring the often-deadlocked Federal Election Commission, and limiting state voter purges. Not only would the Manchin proposal continue to allow states to engage in voter purges, it also will require some form of voter identification for voting in federal elections, though in a more relaxed form than some of the strict rules some states have enacted. It also would weaken some of the standards for restoring preclearance under the John Lewis bill, making it harder to get a jurisdiction covered by the requirement and easier for a jurisdiction to get out from under its coverage.

From the memo Manchin put out [PDF version], here is the entire section on "Voting Legislation" (emphasis in original):

  1. Make election day a public holiday (New)
  2. Mandate at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections (include 2 weekends)
  3. Ban partisan gerrymandering and use computer models (New)
  4. Require voter ID with allowable alternatives (utility bill, etc.) to prove identity to vote (New)
  5. Automatic registration through DMV, with option to opt out.
  6. Require states to promote access to voter registration and voting for persons with disabilities and older individuals.
  7. Prohibit providing false information about elections to hinder or discourage voting and increases penalties for voter intimidation.
  8. Require states to send absentee by mail ballots to eligible voters before an election if voter is not able to vote in person during early voting or election day due to eligible circumstance and allow civil penalty for failure. (New)
  9. Require the Election Assistance Commission to develop model training programs and award grants for training.
  10. Require states to notify an individual, not later than 7 seven days before election, if his/her polling place has changed.
    • Absentee ballots shall be carried expeditiously and free of postage.
    • Require the Attorney General to develop a state-based response system and hotline that provides information on voting.
  11. Allow for maintenance of voter rolls by utilizing information derived from state and federal documents.
  12. Establish standards for election vendors based on cybersecurity concerns.
  13. Allow provisional ballots to count for all eligible races regardless of precinct.

The document also has sections for Campaign Finance, Ethics, Executive Branch Reform (with only one item: requiring presidents, vice presidents, and those running for the two offices to disclose their tax returns), and the changes he would make to the Updated John Lewis Voting Rights Act (which is, for now, a separate bill, but could ultimately be combined with the For The People Act).

Admittedly, it's a half a loaf, at best. The question for Democrats is whether they would accept this half-loaf now, with the possibility of revisiting some of the things included later on (if they ever get larger majorities in Congress).

Manchin has made a serious offer. He's even added a few good ideas. He's also added a few bad ones, and changed what already existed (mostly for the worse). But the worst things Democrats might have to accept in it really aren't that bad. I hate to say it, but Democrats have largely lost the public opinion battle over voter identification laws. They should realize this and just give in to the inevitable, at this point, even if it means forcing blue states which currently don't have voter I.D. laws to adopt them. At least Manchin's voter I.D. proposal is a lot better than any Republicans have pushed (allows for alternatives, which is nowhere near as strict as some of these laws currently are).

Aside from voter I.D., for progressives the worst thing is that Manchin removed the public financing for congressional candidates from the bill, but that was always probably going to be too heavy a lift even for such an expansive bill. The public financing fight can be waged separately, as it almost should be (because it would be such a monumental change in election financing laws). It would have been nice to pass it in the For The People Act, but I've always seen this one as the first to be jettisoned, so it doesn't surprise me in the least that Manchin did so.

One thing Manchin is apparently against is no-excuse absentee ballots (being able to request one without having to provide any kind of reason for doing so). And he's for purging voter rolls, as well. Both might have sprung from his own experiences running elections under West Virginia law, one assumes. But although progressives are completely against both positions, they still might not be bad enough to kill Manchin's proposal. Tweaks to the law will always be possible in the future, after all, assuming Democrats still have control of Congress.

The best thing Manchin does support, of course, is banning partisan gerrymandering. There are no details given (other than "use computer models") but any step towards eliminating gerrymandering is a good one, and this seems to be a rather large leap in that direction.

So there are a lot of "Republican-lite" measures in Manchin's proposal, but overall they might be acceptable to Democrats -- acceptable enough to get the other measures passed, at least. Such is the nature of compromise.

This is likely the only chance Democrats are going to have to actually pass such a bill. Republicans are already trying to torpedo it, and they may well succeed. No GOP senator has signed onto the idea, even in a nebulous "maybe, maybe not" way. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already threatened there will be no GOP votes for it at all. This is going to lead to a lot of pressure on Manchin to reform the filibuster rule to allow it to pass on a party-line vote, which is going to be very tough to do. But if anything passes at all, it's going to have Joe Manchin's imprint all over it. The memo he released today is a pretty clear indicator of what he's going to be willing to accept, and what he won't.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


6 Comments on “Manchin Lays Out His Voting Rights Priorities”

  1. [1] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    Can you comment on how this opening to getting all 50 Democrats onto a voting reform bill is going to get past the filibuster?

    Manchin is either blind or he isn't. He knows perfectly well that a voting rights bill cut to his liking - that is, close to his .pdf as you report here - is not going to get a Republican vote in the Senate, not to mention the House. But the House Dems could swallow hard and pass this watered-down bill. The Senate Dems haven't a chance.

    Yet... here is Manchin, taking the time to itemize and therefore make possible a unified Democratic bill in the Senate - that can't pass unless the filibuster is modified or abolished. Which he took the time a week ago to declare he would never do.

    Why is he taking all this time to set himself up on both sides of the same issue?

  2. [2] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    John M from Ct.

    I believe that Manchin has actually said that he would not weaken or abolish the filibuster; which would seem to indicate that he would be open to modify the filibuster in ways that strengthened it.

  3. [3] 
    John M wrote:

    If I read what has been reported in the news correctly lately, Manchin is open to adopting the suggestion on the filibuster that rather than requiring 60 votes to end the filibuster, you only require 55 votes to end it, or 41 affirmative votes to start a filibuster in the first place.

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Happy juneteenth!

    I sincerely hope this will be the title of tonight's ftp.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I think it will be.

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'm wrong, again.

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