Democrats see a national voting overhaul as a key part of their policy agenda, an urgent issue that they say requires legislative intervention as GOP-controlled state legislatures across the country work to pass — or already have passed — restrictive new voting and election laws.

But the prospect of passing any kind of sweeping legislation took a hit over the weekend when Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said he opposes Democrats’ flagship voting bill, the For the People Act.

Writing in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Manchin said the For the People act is too “partisan,” arguing that “congressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward.”

But Biden and other Democrats say they simply want to protect voting rights that Republicans are fighting hard to restrict at the state level; several GOP-controlled states have already passed new voting restrictions, while dozens of others are in the process of considering new laws that would limit ballot access, increase voter ID requirements or otherwise make it more difficult to vote.

Democrats had focused on the For the People Act, a broad and transformative bill that would have, among other things, created a national automatic system for registering voters and established national standards for mail-in and absentee ballots. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal those measures would have been; there’s a reason it was labeled House Resolution 1 in this Congress, a sign that it was the Democrats’ top priority. A national voter registration system would have pulled voters’ information from preexisting government databases, like state driver’s license databases and taxpayer information. Anyone could opt out of being automatically registered to vote — but barring that, every American would be automatically registered.

Democrats never looked likely to get the 60 votes required to move forward on it in the Senate, but they wanted to put it to a vote, and they wanted to get all 50 Democrats in the chamber to vote for it. Manchin scuppered those plans with his op-ed, and his consistent opposition to changing Senate filibuster rules means little of the Democrats’ agenda appears within reach.

President Biden on June 1 appeared to call out Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for aligning too closely with Republicans. (The Washington Post)

Manchin did say, though, that he will support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named after the Democratic congressman who died in 2020 after representing Georgia’s 5th District for more than three decades.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is a much different bill, and it isn’t fair to describe it as a substitute for the For the People Act. But Democrats are still pushing to move it forward in Congress; it hasn’t yet been brought up in the House in this Congress (though an earlier version of the bill passed in 2019 before failing in the Senate committee process).

Here’s what it would do:

  • Create a pathway for citizens or the federal government to challenge new voter laws in the courts, particularly if parties can show the new law infringes on minority voting rights.
  • Require public notice for any changes made to voting laws in a state or political subdivision.
  • Provide new rules for polling places on Indian reservations that require states to pay for polling places at no cost to tribes.
  • Require many categories of changes in state or local election procedures to go through a process called “preclearance” — essentially, approval from the Justice Department’s civil rights division — before being implemented.

The last bullet point is the most important and contentious one. The bill would require changes to a whole lot of different kinds of laws and voting procedures to be subject to federal preclearance, including:

  • Changes to the number of at-large elected positions within a state or subdivision.
  • Redistricting.
  • Voter ID requirements.
  • Alterations to multilingual voting materials.
  • Changes to precinct locations or early-voting access.
  • Changes to how voter rolls are purged.

Opponents say that gives the federal government way too much control over approving state and local election laws. Preclearance was actually part of the law in the past but was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, in large part because it applied only to certain states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, plus a few individual counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and two townships in Michigan). The court essentially said Congress hadn’t taken the country’s racial progress since the 1960s into account in monitoring just those jurisdictions.

Those jurisdictions were part of the original 1965 Voting Rights Act, largely because of the history of discrimination in those places. Democrats, including Manchin, now say the most direct solution to that problem is to require preclearance in all jurisdictions, in all 50 states.

But Republicans are vocally opposed to the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, just as they are to the For the People Act. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said the point of both bills is to “get the federal government basically to manage the voting system,” and others have said they oppose it.

That probably means it’s headed nowhere in the Senate and won’t become law. But if it has the support of all 50 Democratic senators, it could at least get as far as a vote, which would put Republicans on the record as being against it.

But Manchin still won’t budge on the filibuster. And that’s bad news for Democrats’ efforts to protect voting rights — and the rest of their agenda, too.