The bad news is that, without Mr. Manchin’s support, the measure will not even attract a simple majority, let alone the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. The silver lining is that Mr. Manchin has full-throatedly and repeatedly endorsed another election bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also favors. Despite many Democrats’ desire to continue working on the For the People Act, the future of Americans’ voting rights now lies with the John Lewis Act, which lawmakers must immediately prioritize.
Admittedly, that bill would do far less. H.R. 1 would have ended partisan gerrymandering, required no-excuse absentee voting, created an automatic voter-registration system, set up a public campaign finance program and much more. The John Lewis Act would primarily patch the gaping hole the Supreme Court ripped in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, reestablishing the “preclearance” system that operated for decades until the court’s 2013 ruling. That system required states with a history of racism to obtain Justice Department preapproval before shifting voting rules, which prevented and deterred states from stacking the deck against minority voters. Almost immediately after the court’s ruling, Republican-led states began passing aggressive voter-suppression laws.
Mr. Manchin has proposed reestablishing preclearance for all states, rather than just a few, which would make the system more protective than it had been and prevent the court from objecting that the federal government is singling out some states for scrutiny. That would be far better than the status quo.
But, as Mr. Manchin has now made the John Lewis Act the vehicle for voting rights reform, he and Ms. Murkowski should go further. There is much in H.R. 1 that did not strictly address voting access, making it easy for Republicans to argue that it was a Democratic wish list disguised as a pro-democracy bill. Yet H.R. 1 also contained many provisions to which no lawmaker committed to democracy should object, such as early voting or streamlined voter registration. Mr. Manchin and Ms. Murkowski should specify which of those they oppose, and why, and import the ones they do not oppose into the John Lewis Act. They should also consider provisions that would prevent state legislatures or Congress from overturning electoral results.
Even an unamended John Lewis Act faces long odds. Some Republican senators are already claiming that the bill is “too much too soon” and a “backdoor” H.R. 1, absurd arguments given that it would mostly restore a preclearance system that worked well for decades. There may not be substantial numbers of GOP senators willing to vote for any bill that would protect Americans’ voting rights. Mr. Manchin, Ms. Murkowski and other lawmakers must still try — even if all they do is force their recalcitrant colleagues to go on the record opposing what should be a noncontroversial act, and expose just how hostile the GOP has become to the principle that all Americans should have access to the ballot box.