Manchin’s opposition to this unnecessary proposal earned him a lot of progressive scorn, but the West Virginia Democrat rose to the moment this week by producing a much-scaled-down set of principles that Republicans could endorse. He would make Election Day a public holiday and mandate 15 days of continuous early voting in federal elections. He would also require automatic voter registration for people with driver’s licenses, although he would allow people to opt out of registration if they didn’t want to appear on the rolls. And he would require voters to show identification when they arrive at the polls and ban partisan gerrymandering. Each of these ideas would marginally increase voter turnout without giving license to fraud.
What Manchin doesn’t include is as important as what he does. His idea does not sanction nationwide, no-excuse mail balloting, as H.R. 1 would. There’s no requirement for states to create stand-alone drop boxes where voters can submit ballots without direct personal supervision by election officials. There’s no ban on states adopting identification measures for people who ask to vote by mail. And there’s no provision legalizing third-party handling of ballots, something Republicans call “ballot harvesting.” Each of these measures would have opened the door for enterprising fraudsters; keeping them out of his proposal shows Manchin takes election integrity seriously.
His proposed changes to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act also demonstrate that Manchin is serious about keeping election law from becoming a partisan football. His ideas on the bill, which would reauthorize the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, are not as fleshed out, but in general they limit an attorney general or partisan-allied lawyers’ groups from using the law to coerce states and localities to agree to voting rules that advantage one side and that aren’t approved by elected representatives. He would also require an objective test to determine whether a state or locality has a pattern of election discrimination that might warrant additional federal oversight. This principle recognizes that the days of Jim Crow are over, and that any arguments we have about voting access address marginal, not significant, barriers to voting.
Abrams’s endorsement is surprising given how the Georgia Democrat has made crusading for progressive visions of voting access her calling card. But it may be a welcome — if perhaps belated — recognition that most Americans don’t share her views. Polls regularly show that even Democrats and Black Americans approve of voter-identification laws, and it’s increasingly hard to say anyone is denied the right to vote when there are so many ways to cast a ballot at one’s convenience. Her endorsement could help bring progressives on board.
Republicans should endorse this, too, with some amendments. The automatic voter registration requirement should include a provision that ensures only citizens can be registered, which probably requires some sort of measure that ensures driver’s license applicants provide a Social Security number whose validity can be checked against the federal government’s E-Verify platform. The voter-ID component should also require a person who relies on an alternative identification measure that does not contain a picture ID to submit to having their photo taken upon voting. That photograph can then be attached to their voter file so that no one can subsequently impersonate them, and so election officials can verify their identity visually in future elections.
Done right, early in-person and mail voting can improve voter access without seriously risking election integrity. Manchin’s ideas largely do that and could be a way to restore faith in our sorely tested democratic norms.