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Opinion It’s time for Democrats to force Joe Manchin to show his hand

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on Capitol Hill on April 29. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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Senate Democrats on Tuesday are planning to mark up their voting-rights legislation, known as the For The People Act, with a series of amendments from the version of the bill that the House passed in March. The expected changes are not all that dramatic, including adding waivers for automatic registration rules, easing same-day registration requirements and scaling back a 15-day early voting requirement of small jurisdictions.

No one should be under the illusion that these amendments will persuade any Republicans to support a voting-rights bill. They instead appear to be designed to address complaints from Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), the sole Democrat who has not co-sponsored the bill and who has raised concerns about the lack of flexibility for local voting officials. He seems firmly opposed to dramatic voting reform, but it is unclear what voting provisions he would support. If, as some voting-rights advocates suspect, he is looking to be an obstacle to preserve his standing in a conservative state, they are wasting their time trying to accommodate his demands.

Rather than throwing out proposals with the hope to get Manchin’s buy-in, perhaps it is time to force him to show his hand. What voting reform is he prepared to accept? (It is bizarre, frankly, that Democrats are obsessing about going too far to protect voting rights.)

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Manchin is operating in good faith and would support a limited but substantial list of voting reforms (e.g., independent redistricting, guaranteed early and no-excuse absentee voting, a mandatory paper trail subject to audit) and H.R. 4, which would reauthorize preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. He would then still need 10 Republican votes, which he seems to think can emerge from open debate and negotiation.

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Manchin almost certainly will not find 10 Republicans willing to acknowledge that the problem is not voting fraud but voting restrictions. Given that House Republicans are about to excommunicate one of their leaders for refusing to go along with the Big Lie that the election was stolen, I would guess the task of finding any Republican senator who is willing to dispense with the lie about voting fraud and circumvent state legislatures seeking to suppress voting is virtually impossible. (Are there even 10 Republicans to support a stand-alone H.R. 4?)

That means Manchin will have to make a decision that he seems determined to avoid: If no voting rights bill will ever garner 10 Republican votes, what is he prepared to do about it? The answer may be “nothing.” He currently enjoys cover to avoid tough votes (on voting reform and anything else) if the 60-vote cloture rule remains in place. So long as the filibuster makes passage of controversial bills impossible, he need not go up against home-state conservatives on any issue. He could, of course, support a limited exception to the filibuster (as reconciliation has done) to requires a simple majority to pass legislation that entails constitutional protections, but it is far from clear that would pass muster with him.

Manchin must surely realize that Democratic voters, donors and activists — as well as his fellow officeholders — will not accept a senator who refuses to defend voting rights in the midst of an onslaught of Jim Crow-style legislation. Voting rights and protection of multiracial democracy are so fundamental to the ethos of the party (more so than abortion rights, taxes or any other topic) that Manchin risks an irreparable breach with his fellow Democrats should he refuse to block the Republicans’ assault on voting rights. (So long as they pick up a seat or two in 2022, many Democrats would support a primary challenge against Manchin in 2024, even at the risk of losing the seat, if he impedes voting rights reform.)

Democrats should make clear that party members cannot remain in good standing unless they prioritize voting rights over the filibuster. If the red line for Republicans is embrace of the Big Lie, the red line for Democrats is embrace of the Big Truth — namely that democracy is imperiled by Jim Crow-style legislation. Ultimately, Manchin will have to decide whether he stands with advocates of voter suppression or his own party.

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