The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Manchin’s defense of bipartisanship is a canard

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) leaves the U.S. Capitol after a vote on June 10. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) inveighs against voting laws passed on a strictly partisan basis. As he wrote recently: “The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics. Least of all, protecting this right, which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner.” In other words, his sole reason for voting against the For the People Act, a federal voting rights bill, is that “partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy.”

One can argue that when one party is dedicated to weakening, if not destroying, democracy, the remaining pro-democracy party must act. But one need not go that far to spot Manchin’s illogic.

While Manchin pays lip service to concerns about state laws “that seek to needlessly restrict voting,” his opposition to federal voting rights reform enables those state laws. The Brennan Center for Justice documents just how partisan these state initiatives have been: “Republicans introduced and drove virtually all of the bills that impose new voting restrictions, and the harshest new laws were passed with almost exclusively Republican votes and signed into law by Republican governors,” a Brennan Center study found. “The few bills that received Democratic support are generally less restrictive.”

The report found: “Sixteen of the most restrictive policies enacted this year, in nine states, were passed on strict party-line or near party-line votes. The only substantially restrictive bill to receive Democratic votes was enacted in Arkansas, where three other severely restrictive laws passed on strict party-line votes.” When “more than 90 percent of the most significant voting restrictions were enacted along party lines, and all of the states with the most restrictive new laws had strict party-line votes,” alarm bells should go off for Manchin, who supposedly frets that partisan voting laws erode trust and injure democracy.

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Legislation passed on a bipartisan basis does not fit the Jim Crow mold. Laws in Kentucky, Oklahoma and Indiana, for example, do entail some voting restrictions, but they also “contain a number of policies that also expand voter access,” the Brennan Center reports. In Alabama, Idaho, Nevada and Utah, bipartisan bills are likewise less heavy-handed than those passed on a strict party line.

Indeed, five bills in Nevada would expand access by, among other things, allowing people with disabilities to use an electronic voting system; expanding mail-in voting (moving to an opt-out, not opt-in system); unifying and simplifying the voter registration system; and expanding automatic voter registration. Nevada even dumped its presidential caucuses in favor of a more democratic primary.

But when legislation restricts access to the ballot — passed on the false premise of massive voter fraud — are entirely partisan, what happens to Manchin’s yearning for bipartisanship? One would think the Senate’s filibuster should be flexible enough to allow passage of corrective legislation.

And if Manchin is serious about supporting H.R. 4′s reauthorization of preclearance measures in the Voting Rights Act, a new standard without geographical limits might be employed. Any bill that places barriers to voting that is passed on a partisan or nearly partisan basis should carry the presumption of illegitimacy. The burden to prove that a measure serves a legitimate state interest and does not disproportionately affect a protected group should then shift to the states.

Manchin has turned “bipartisanship” on its head. He is enabling unprecedented and partisan legislation to erode democracy in a slew of states. If these state measures are truly confidence building and security measures, they should be able to attract support from both parties. That they are purely the creation of Republicans peddling the “big lie” about a stolen election should make clear they are not good-faith attempts to protect voting. These are malicious efforts at the behest of one party to curtail poor, disabled and minority voters from casting their votes. That should disturb Manchin greatly.

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