Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed to bring the deal to a vote next week, which will likely receive zero GOP support. Republicans will run through the usual litany of buzzwords — “power grab,” “federal takeover” — but in fact they simply want to exclude certain kinds of voters and empower their state allies to overturn results when they lose.
The Senate bill would adopt many of the expansive voting access provisions that Republicans in some red states put into place in 2020, which produced record turnout and a historically accurate result (as we know from multiple recounts in states such as Georgia and Arizona). The bill’s anti-subversion rules would also simply secure the neutral, nonpartisan administration of elections in effect before Republicans started churning out laws to allow hyper-partisan GOP legislatures to shove nonpartisan election officials out of the way to reverse unfavorable results.
Manchin has insisted that there are 10 reasonable, pro-democracy Republicans out there to vote for basic voting reform — although such credulousness was already tested when 10 Republican senators could not be found to vote for a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. When Manchin’s 10 imaginary Republican allies again fail to materialize, the lines will be drawn: Will he countenance a full-fledged effort to undermine our democracy, or will he look for a reform to the filibuster rule, which appears nowhere in the Constitution?
In addition to constructing a voting rights bill that even Manchin could support, Democrats have a few advantages they did not have even a few months ago. First, passage of bills such as Texas’s voter suppression package underscores the need for federal legislation. Democracy Docket summarizes the measures contained in Texas’s law, including “criminalizing public officials’ efforts to encourage the submission of absentee ballot applications; additional ID requirements for absentee voting; the effective elimination of drop boxes, drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting; new obstacles for voters to receive assistance to vote absentee or in person; and the empowerment of partisan poll watchers.”
Even more ominously, Democrats can point to new laws in Georgia and Texas that set up the potential for a partisan overthrow of election results. In Texas, as election law guru David Becker explained on Twitter, Republican legislation "injects unnecessary chaos into the election process, and criminalizes and restricts professional election administration by those most knowledgeable about the process and their voters — the election officials.” The GOP legislation, Becker noted, “empowers partisan poll watchers to roam anywhere around the polling place, potentially interfering with the voting process and intimidating voters, and severely restricts, and even criminalizes, efforts by election workers to restore order.” It is that sort of deliberately destructive legislation that election advocates will use to make their case for reforming the filibuster to Manchin.
Persistent Republican efforts to conduct phony “audits” and ongoing claims of “fraud” (as Republicans have raised in California’s recall election before single vote has been counted) should convince Manchin that, though the Senate bill’s provisions to open up access to voting are essential, just as important are the provisions to establish orderly, fair and impartial administration of elections. It is as much a voting rights bill as an anti-election-chaos bill.
Democrats’ chief voting rights litigator, Marc Elias, wrote for Democracy Docket recently: “While members of the Republican Party are willing to discuss infrastructure, criminal justice reform and even the events of January 6, they refuse to even acknowledge any need to restore the Voting Rights Act or otherwise expand access to voting.” In other words, he argued, “On issues of voting rights, there are no moderates in the Republican Party.” He concluded, “The reality is that there will either be a law passed only with Democratic votes or we will not have any voting rights legislation.”
News reports suggest President Biden is ready to start lobbying Democrats for a filibuster exception or reform. If that is true, his relationship with Manchin and his persuasive skills could well determine whether 2020 was our last fair, free and reliable federal election. It is no exaggeration that Manchin’s entire legacy and America’s democracy hang in the balance.