In a new column published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced his opposition to the For The People Act, a bill that would protect voting rights nationwide. His arguments echo talking points released in April by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Republican-alligned trade association that recently backed his reelection campaign.
Across the country — in Georgia, Iowa, Arizona, Florida, and elsewhere — Republican-controlled legislators are imposing unnecessary and discriminatory restrictions on the right to vote. Some of these new laws also politicize the administration of elections, making it easier for partisans to take control of the process or even throw out the results. Taken together, this push to restrict and politicize voting rights is a threat to American democracy.
Republicans at the state level are not passing these state laws on a bipartisan basis. Their actions are inspired by Trump's malicious lies about the 2020 election. And the new laws are being enacted with no Democratic support.
Democrats have the power to stop this. The House has already passed the For The People Act, legislation that would "thwart virtually every vote suppression bill currently pending in the states." There are 50 Democratic Senators and the Senate can pass any law with 50 votes. Yes, current Senate rules allow the minority to filibuster legislation and it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster. But it only takes 50 votes to change the rules. So if the 50 Democratic Senators wanted to pass the For The People Act, they could do it.
Standing in the way of this, however, are Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). In his column, Manchin says he opposes the For The People Act because it is not bipartisan legislation.
[P]artisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy — it will destroy it.
As such, congressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward or we risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials.
...Democrats in Congress have proposed a sweeping election reform bill called the For the People Act. This more than 800-page bill has garnered zero Republican support.
This argument is very strange. On an entirely partisan basis, Republicans in the states are taking steps that Manchin himself acknowledges "needlessly restrict voting." But Manchin says he will only agree to stop this partisan power grab if Republicans agree to join him.
This is the exact same argument the Chamber used in talking points it sent to Senators in April opposing the legislation.
The Chamber believes the ability of Americans to exercise their right to vote in accessible and secure elections and to be able to trust in a free and fair outcome is fundamental to who we are as a nation. The Chamber is deeply troubled by efforts at the state and federal level to enact election law changes on a partisan basis. Changes enacted on a partisan basis are the most likely to erode access and security and undermine public confidence and the willingness of the American people to trust and accept future election outcomes.
The Chamber acknowledges that state laws, like Texas' SB 7, are being advanced by Republicans alone. The Chamber, however, has not opposed SB 7 or any other state legislation. But it insists federal legislation to stop this Republican power grab must be bipartisan.
While the argument crafted by the Chamber and adopted by Manchin is designed to seem centrist and reasonable, it has the same practical effect as opposing all federal legislation to protect voting rights. Why? Because there do not appear to be ten Republicans that will support any federal law to protect voting rights.
Manchin's position underscores the centrality of the Chamber in undermining efforts to protect voting rights. The Chamber's aggressive lobbying campaign to defeat federal voting legislation is being underwritten by America's most prominent corporations — including many that publicly claim to be champions of voting rights.
Process over substance
One remarkable aspect of Manchin's column announcing his opposition to the For The People Act is that it does not contain one substantive criticism of the For The People Act.
Manchin notes that the For The People Act is "sweeping," 800 pages, and has "garnered zero Republican support." But the For The People Act has a lot of specific provisions. Does Manchin oppose automatic voter registration? Or a 15-day early voting period? Or vote-by-mail? Or non-partisan redistricting?
Manchin doesn't say. His objections focus exclusively on process and ignore substance.
The nature of bipartisanship
Manchin insists that "federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together." But according to polling, Democrats and Republicans have come together in support of the For The People Act.
While no Republicans in the Senate support the legislation, an April poll by Data for Progress found substantial Republican support among voters. The firm asked 1138 likely voters the following question:
The For the People Act is a voting reform bill that would make it easier to vote, limit the influence of money in politics, and require congressional districts to be drawn by a non-partisan commission so that no one party has an advantage.
52% of Republicans, 70% of Independents, and 85% of Democrats supported the legislation. A separate poll, conducted by End Citizens United in April, found that 79% of West Virginia voters, including 76% of West Virginia Republicans, supported the bill.
So the For The People Act has considerable Republican support. It just lacks support from any of the 50 Republican Senators.
Romanticizing the filibuster
Manchin attributes an importance to the filibuster that is not based in fact. "Our founders were wise to see the temptation of absolute power and built in specific checks and balances to force compromise that serves to preserve our fragile democracy," Manchin writes.
The founders, of course, did not include the filibuster in the Constitution. For decades, American democracy existed without any filibuster at all. And prior to the 1980s, filibusters were rare.
The break from tradition is not eliminating the filibuster but the exploitation of the filibuster to establish a de facto 60-vote threshold for all non-budget legislation.
Time for some game theory
If Manchin wants voting rights legislation to pass on a bipartisan basis — with 10 or more Republicans — he is going about it all wrong. Thus far, there is only one Republican who supports significant federal legislation to protect voting rights. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) supports the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Imagine if Manchin had left open the possibility of altering the filibuster rules to pass voting rights legislation. Republicans would have a strong incentive to work toward a compromise because the alternative would be legislation passing without their input. Instead, Manchin has ruled out altering the filibuster rules under any circumstances.
So if Republicans do nothing, nothing will happen. And for most Republicans in the Senate, that's exactly what they want.