But regardless of what happens with the bill, Manchin’s proposal has moved the needle in one significant way: signaling a softening by key Democrats on voter ID.
Among the carrots for Republicans in Manchin’s proposal is a voter ID provision. Republicans pushed voter ID hard at the state level in recent years. But rather than merely describe Manchin’s voter ID proposal as a concession, some key Democrats have suggested they don’t really object to it — or the broader concept — at all.
Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, a leader of Democrats’ voting rights push, was asked last week on CNN whether she “could accept this compromise, what Joe Manchin laid out, even if voter ID was part of it.”
“That’s one of the fallacies of Republican talking points that have been deeply disturbing,” Abrams said. “No one has ever objected to having to prove who you are to vote. It’s been part of our nation’s history since the inception of voting.”
Similarly, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) said he never full-stop objected to voter ID and suggested it’s a common-sense idea when done right.
“I have never been opposed to voter ID,” Warnock said, according to NBC News. He added, per The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis and Vanessa Williams: “I don’t know anybody who believes that people shouldn’t have to prove that they are who they say they are.”
Abrams, for instance, opposed a Georgia bill mandating voter ID for absentee ballots in April by saying, “Voters without a driver’s license or state ID must surrender their personal information and risk identity theft just to receive an absentee ballot.” Warnock said in 2015, “Dealing with these voter ID laws — this is not about voter verification, this is about voter suppression.”
There is some real nuance in these past comments — and nuance in voter ID proposals, which Republicans have in the recent past sought to gloss over. Both Abrams and Warnock emphasized last week that they didn’t oppose voter ID out of hand, but rather that they just opposed specific types of more-restrictive voter ID such as the ones Republicans proposed in recent years. Manchin’s proposal is significantly less stringent than most every Republican effort, allowing voters to produce things such as utility bills rather than photo identification.
Abrams added in her comments: “What has been problematic is the type of restrictive [voter] ID that we’ve seen pop up.”
Warnock added: “But what has happened over the years is people have played with common-sense identification and put into place restrictive measures intended not to preserve the integrity of the outcome, but to select certain voters. That’s what I oppose.”
Indeed, the past Warnock comments spotlighted by the Republican-oriented Senate Leadership Fund didn’t necessarily cast all voter ID as being out of bounds; each of the comments connected Republican efforts on that front to alleged voter suppression. Abrams’s past comments about Georgia’s S.B. 202 are somewhat tougher to square with Manchin’s proposal, given that the bill allowed for using a state identification number in lieu of a photo ID for absentee ballot applications. (It’s not clear how Manchin’s voter ID proposal would apply to mail ballots.)
But Abrams in a 2020 book did differentiate between more-restrictive voter ID and other forms of “basic voter ID”:
Restrictive voter identification is the main weapon to fight the nonexistent wave of voter fraud, but this is not the same as basic voter ID. Basic voter ID has been a part of voting since the beginning, and both Democrats and Republicans agree that people should provide proof of who they are before casting ballots. ... What has changed in recent years is the type of identification required and the difficulty or expense of securing the necessary documents. Restrictive voter ID severely narrows the list of permitted documents that serve as proof, and these laws typically exclude previously permissible documents.
Even accounting for that and the idea that opposing GOP voter ID bills isn’t the same as opposing all voter ID, what we saw last week was a significant rhetorical concession from some key Democrats. It wasn’t just that voter ID was worth the rest of Manchin’s package; it was that it wasn’t really a big deal at all to have a less-stringent version of such a law.
Part of that, undoubtedly, is Democrats trying to focus on the art of the possible while not wanting to look like they have abandoned their past principles. Part of it could also be the fact that codifying such a federal proposal could actually reduce the barriers to voting in certain states in which GOP legislatures passed much tougher measures. There is an emerging school of thought that even stricter voter ID rules may not be as suppressive as many Democrats once warned.
It’s also very difficult to separate from where polling on this issue has long been. A Monmouth University poll released Monday morning showed 80 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that they, in general, support “requiring voters to show a photo ID in order to vote” — not just some form of ID, but photo ID. Fully 62 percent of Democrats agreed.
The concept behind voter ID has long been a consensus issue for American voters. Democrats, confronted with a raft of GOP efforts to tighten voting rules at the state level, increasingly seem eager to fight more winnable battles. Not everyone is sold, but Abrams’s and Warnock’s comments seem to signal a notable shift from two very key Democrats. On top of the lack of real pushback on Manchin’s voter ID proposal, it suggests we may have entered a new era in this debate.