This is a scaled-down version of the House’s For the People Act focused directly on the avalanche of voter suppression and subversion that Republicans passed in many states. The Democrats’ bill contains a raft of measures designed to support access to the ballot, including automatic voter registration and online registration; designating Election Day as a federal holiday; same-day registration; at least 15 days of early voting; uniform standards for voting by mail and for drop boxes; rules for voter-roll purges; requirements for counting provisional ballots in whatever precinct they are cast; voter-ID standards; the enfranchisement of former nonviolent felons after they have served their time; and new rules to ensure access for voters with disabilities.
On redistricting, the bill does not require independent commissions. Instead, as voting expert Michael McDonald of University of Florida points out, the bill attempts to set up criteria that are enforceable in court. It is a real question whether it is possible to implement these now in time for 2022 elections.
The most important provisions, however, have to do with preventing vote-counting shenanigans, phony election “fraudits” and the partisan takeover of election administration. These parts of the Democrats’ bill are aimed at preventing not only post-election chaos but also overt attempts to steal elections. These would protect the integrity and security of ballots and voting machines (in response to Arizona’s disastrous phony audit); require paper-ballot backups; set standards for professional post-election audits and for the recruitment and training of poll workers; and mandate cybersecurity protections and “a reporting requirement for federal campaigns to disclose certain foreign contacts” (in response to the 2016 numerous interactions with Russian officials by Trump campaign officials).
These election integrity measures that have become critical for voting experts and advocates who have watched Republicans lay the groundwork for election chaos. Election law guru Rick Hasen tells me, “I’m glad some [anti-subversion] provisions made it into the bill as it is the most urgent threat facing American democracy today.”
The progressive Fair Elections Center praised the bill: “The Freedom to Vote Act is a critical, timely response to the rampant voting restrictions across our country. As millions of Americans continue to be disenfranchised by voter suppression laws, Congress needs to act urgently to vote on and pass these federal protections into law.” It urged, as many Democrats have done, not to allow the filibuster to stand in the way of critical repairs.
Likewise, Jessica Marsden, counsel at the nonpartisan Protect Democracy tells me, “This bill pushes back on state legislatures who are systematically undermining the basic principle that voters, not politicians, should decide election outcomes.” She adds, “Americans overwhelmingly support federal legislation that would secure ballots, combat voter intimidation and protect election results from partisan interference.” In particular, Marsden urged the Senate to pass reforms that "safeguard our elections from partisan actors who appear willing to subvert the will of the people.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) immediately declared no interest in it. He and his fellow Republicans remain dead-set against overturning new, Jim Crow-style laws and preventing the type of circus-like audits seen in Maricopa County, Ariz.
Democrats — and Manchin in particular — need to take this “no” for an answer. Republicans aren’t interested. Period. It is up to Democrats to decide whether one party can exploit a Senate procedural rule to undermine the building blocks of democracy.
The bill immediately got a blessing from voting-rights advocate Stacey Abrams and from former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. Abrams tweeted: “The Freedom to Vote Act has my strong support.” She then “commended” the Democrats who forged the compromise.
Manchin can spin his wheels trying to get any Republican (let alone 10!) on board. His only leverage is this: “Give me 10 votes, or I’ll vote to reform the filibuster.” Unfortunately, after spending months insisting he would do no such thing, such a threat may not be credible. If so, Democrats have to decide whether at least one party will protect the right to vote and to have votes accurately counted.
Fifty senators need to think long and hard about the consequences of refusing to respond to overt efforts to suppress the vote and bring chaos to elections, which could result in a replay of the violence that occurred on Jan. 6. With one party now ready to scream “Fraud!” at the drop of a hat, certainty and accuracy of vote counting have become paramount. No Democrat will ever cast a more important vote.