The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Joe Manchin really believes this about the GOP, we’re in serious trouble

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), speaks during a visit with first lady Jill Biden to a vaccination center at Capital High School in Charleston, W. Va. (Oliver Contreras/AP)
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As the GOP’s slide into extreme radicalization continues, Democrats from districts and states with a lot of GOP voters in them face a brutal political problem.

On the one hand, that radicalization is putting pressure on them to level with voters about the unilateral threat Republicans pose to democratic stability. On the other, these Democrats’ electorates require them to appear bipartisan and moderate, which is hard to maintain when calling out GOP extremism with the clarity it requires.

A new initiative from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) seeking bipartisan support for voting rights protections neatly captures this tension. It also illustrates why Democrats must find a way to resolve it. If not, the prospects for strengthening democracy will grow dimmer.

Manchin has just released a joint letter with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) calling on Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. Manchin supports this, rather than the more sweeping pro-democracy reforms that Democrats are championing.

Manchin’s letter says again and again that Congress must protect voting rights on a bipartisan basis, in keeping with his insistence that any new democracy reforms must have GOP support.

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But the letter offers an astounding distortion of recent political history:

Since enactment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been reauthorized and amended five times with large, bipartisan majorities. Most recently, The Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006 passed the United States Senate 98-0 without a single dissenting vote. Protecting Americans’ access to democracy has not been a partisan issue for the past 56 years, and we must not allow it to become one now.

What I’ve emphasized there is deeply divorced from reality — dangerously so, in fact. Yes, those older initiatives passed with broad bipartisan support. But in recent years, it is a central fact about our politics that protecting voting rights absolutely has become a partisan issue.

More than six months after the 2020 presidential election, Arizona Senate Republicans are leading an audit of the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

This trend dates back at least to Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, which persuaded Republicans to fear demographic change. As my book recounts, after the 2010 GOP takeover of state legislatures, and after the Supreme Court gutted the requirement that some states and localities get federal preclearance for voting changes in 2013, GOP voter suppression laws and extreme gerrymanders escalated.

While the Democratic Party does have its own history of gerrymandering, and may still engage in some this cycle if reforms don’t happen, in recent years that has become less acceptable to them. Instead, they’ve increasingly embraced nonpartisan redistricting commissions.

Such commissions are a key feature of the ambitious democracy-reform legislation that has passed the House and is now being debated in the Senate. Those reforms include numerous provisions that would broaden voting access and neuter GOP voter suppression tactics.

Indeed, even as Democrats are pushing this, Republicans are boasting that extreme gerrymanders will help them win the House in 2022, and they’re escalating the suppression tactics in states across the country.

In short, broadly speaking, Republicans favor contracting voting access and maximizing legislative control relative to actual vote share wherever possible. Democrats favor expanding voting access and ensuring that legislative control more closely aligns with vote share wherever possible.

Thus it is that strengthening and protecting access to democracy is indeed a partisan issue. And acknowledging this is difficult for politicians in swing districts, let alone deep red states such as West Virginia. But it’s the Rubicon they must cross before we can get serious progress.

And no, this wouldn’t lead to Democrats doing the equivalent of what Republicans are doing. Republicans want to restrict the participation of Democratic-aligned voters to the greatest extent possible, while Democrats want to maximize participation by people of all political persuasions.

Manchin does not want to confront the existence of this fundamental difference.

He’s pushing a version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, one that would restore the need to seek federal preclearance for voting changes but apply them to all 50 states. We do need a measure like that, but it isn’t nearly enough.

It wouldn’t proactively expand voting access or do anything about anti-majoritarian gerrymanders, one of the central anti-majoritarian weapons the GOP will wield to take power and block the Democratic agenda.

Manchin apparently believes his proposal can get 10 GOP Senators to break a filibuster. He is refraining from supporting more robust reforms, believing they won’t win GOP support, and he refuses to entertain nixing the filibuster, without which those reforms will never pass.

Which brings us back to Manchin’s big error. The idea that even his intermediate proposal might win 10 Republicans seems very hard to believe. And his demand that broader reforms must also win 10 Republicans is out of touch with the reality of today’s GOP.

This will have dire consequences. As Ari Berman points out, keeping the filibuster imposes a supermajority requirement on expanding voting rights, even as GOP legislatures are dramatically restricting them everywhere on a majoritarian basis, rendering this “total asymmetric warfare.”

It may be that Manchin does anticipate that Republicans can never be won over, after which he might more seriously entertain ending the filibuster and acting. But if not — if Manchin believes Republicans can be enticed to meaningfully protect voting rights — he is consigning us to a near-term future in which their fate will be shaped by precisely that sort of asymmetric warfare.

Here’s the bottom line: Protecting access to democracy will indeed require a partisan solution. That is, such protections will be implemented almost entirely by one party, if not entirely by it, or they won’t be implemented at all.

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