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Democrats signal a shift toward accepting voter ID laws

Georgia activist and former lawmaker Stacey Abrams in Atlanta last Election Day. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Prominent Democrats have increasingly softened their opposition to voter identification requirements in recent days, signaling a new openness to measures that activists have long vilified as an insidious method of keeping minorities from the ballot box.

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams threw her support last week behind a voting rights compromise proposal by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) that includes voter identification requirements. On Monday, former president Barack Obama said Manchin’s compromise, including the voter ID requirement, didn’t offer anything “particularly controversial.”

The White House also signaled support for Manchin’s package as “a step forward.” Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), meanwhile, told The Washington Post recently he could support some form of voter ID, saying, “I don’t know anybody who believes that people shouldn’t have to prove that they are who they say they are.”

Senate Republicans banded together on June 22 to block a voting rights bill, dealing a blow to Democrats' push to override GOP-passed state voting laws. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Democratic shifts are in part a strategic effort to win broader support for their voting rights push while seeking to put Republicans on the defensive. Voter ID laws have proved popular despite Democratic arguments that they amount to voter suppression, and some activists have concluded that they do less to suppress the vote than they initially feared.

The Democrats’ support for Manchin’s compromise comes amid a defeat for H.R. 1, a far more sweeping Democratic voting rights bill, on a procedural vote in the Senate on Tuesday. That bill would have required states to offer same-day voter registration for federal elections, let voters make changes to their registration at the polls and empowered nonpartisan commissions to draw lines for states’ congressional maps.

That For the People Act failed amid unified opposition from Senate Republicans, who argued it was a Democratic power grab and an effort to wrest away states’ control of their voting practices. In a Senate split 50-50 between the parties, it fell fall short of the 60 votes required for most legislation to advance.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on June 22 slammed Republicans for blocking debate on the For the People Act. (Video: The Washington Post)

Manchin’s surprise decision to offer a compromise package last week — including Democratic priorities such as automatic voter registration and 15 days of early voting, along with the GOP-favored ID requirements — gave Democrats something to rally around and a potential path forward. But it required them to embrace, or at least tolerate, an idea they had long derided.

Their willingness to do so reflected their eagerness to find a way to make any progress on an issue the party sees as existential, as Republicans — spurred by former president Donald Trump’s baseless complaints that fraud cost him the past election — are restricting voting in a growing number of states while blunting Democratic efforts to fight back.

Since the 2020 election, 18 states have enacted more than 30 laws that the advocacy group Voting Rights Lab describes as restrictive. These laws affect about 36 million people, or 15 percent of all eligible voters, the group said in a report last week.

Against that backdrop, figures such as Abrams have seized on Manchin’s compromise.

“What Sen. Manchin is putting forward are some basic building blocks that we need to ensure that democracy is accessible no matter your geography,” Abrams told CNN last week. “And those provisions that he is setting forth are strong ones that will create a level playing field, will create standards that do not vary from state to state.”

At a tele-town hall Monday, Obama said Manchin’s proposal does not address every problem related to voting rights but that “all these provisions are supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people. None of them should be particularly controversial.”

Some Democrats suggested they had never opposed voter ID requirements in general, just rules written narrowly to exclude or favor certain kinds of voters. Some GOP bills, for example, would accept gun owner licenses — but not college IDs — as valid IDs for voting purposes.

Manchin’s proposal, in contrast, would allow a broad range of documents, including items such as utility bills, to serve as identification for voting purposes. It would also make Election Day a federal holiday and ban partisan gerrymandering, among other things. The plan was immediately rejected by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans.

There is little question that leading Democrats’ tone has shifted on the voter ID issue. Abrams and others have long assailed ID rules as a means of disenfranchising voters of color and other disadvantaged groups, since they are least likely to have photo IDs or other government-issued documents. They also argue that there is no evidence that ID requirements prevent election fraud.

The ACLU has called voter ID requirements part of an ongoing strategy to roll back decades of progress on voting rights. Activists have lumped the most onerous identification requirements with bills that make it a felony to give water to people in long voting lines or shuttle people from mostly Black churches to polling places.

But such arguments have rarely resonated with the larger public. Democrats have long struggled to rebut GOP arguments that if an ID is required to drive a car, drink alcohol or undertake other daily activities, doing the same for voting is hardly an egregious rights violation.

A Monmouth University poll released Monday found 80 percent of adults supported a photo ID requirement. While support for voter ID requirements peaked at 91 percent among Republicans, 87 percent of independents and 62 percent of Democrats also backed the idea.

Some conservatives say Democrats are now revealing their hypocrisy by suddenly accepting, for strategic reasons, measures they had long decried as racist and slammed Republicans for supporting.

The Republican National Committee tweeted out two ostensibly conflicting statements by Abrams, first opposing voter ID laws and then accepting them, adding, “Democrat Stacey Abrams suddenly supports voter ID.”

Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Abrams “did a complete flip-flop.”

But Democrats increasingly see a package that includes some give on voter ID as their most likely course to regain some momentum in a fight they are now losing.

On Monday, Biden privately counseled Manchin to “find a path forward” on voting rights. A day later, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) blasted Republicans ahead of the procedural vote on H.R. 1 for being unwilling to even debate the bill, or voting rights in general, accusing them of being in continued thrall to Trump and his false claims of a stolen election.

Later that day, during Tuesday’s White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki said voting rights “will be a fight of (Biden’s) presidency long past today.”

Watch: Psaki says voting rights is the fight of Biden’s presidency

But the White House been under growing pressure from other Democrats to show it is fighting hard against voting restrictions that could hurt the party in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond.

Beyond the legislative fight, Psaki said the administration has “empowered nominees who have been advocates for voting rights.” Attorney General Merrick Garland has doubled the number of prosecutors looking at voting rights violations and has vowed aggressive enforcement and close scrutiny of how states administer their elections.

At the same time, a good portion of the Biden administration’s fight will be taken up by Vice President Harris, who has been charged with acting as a point person on voting rights and who presided over Tuesday’s Senate vote.

Over the weekend, Harris discussed strategy on voting rights with Schumer, according to the vice president’s office. She has also talked to senators, House members and prominent voting rights advocates, including Abrams and Derrick Johnson of the NAACP.

“From our standpoint, it’s now pushing federal legislation, but I don’t think success is just measured by that,” said a senior Harris adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s strategy. “I think she sees her role as broader in terms of lifting up the issue in terms of elevating voices for activists.”

On June 14, Harris met with activists in Greenville, S.C., who conducted successful voter engagement efforts in a state dominated by Republicans. On Friday she met with activists and politicians in Georgia, a state where voter outreach programs in 2020 tapped into demographic changes to hand the state’s 13 electoral votes to a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in two decades. Two months later, both U.S. Senate seats went to Democrats.

Between those trips, Harris met with Democratic members of the Texas legislature who had walked out of a legislative session last month, depriving Republicans of the quorum needed to pass a restrictive voting bill. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has vowed to recall the legislature for a special session.

In the meeting with the Texas legislators, Harris called Republican efforts in Texas and elsewhere “an attempt to marginalize and take from people a right that has already been given. We are not asking for the bestowal. We are talking about the preservation of something that is the right of citizenship. It’s that fundamental.”

Reporters were not allowed into the full meeting, but attendees reached by The Post said Harris framed the issue as a fight that would extend well past Tuesday and the anticipated setback on H.R. 1.

Jessica González, a Democratic member of the state legislature from Dallas, was among those who met with Harris.

“She did point out and really recognize the collaborative effort of the groups of folks that kind of came together,” González said. “We knew that this [Republican] bill would have a disparate impact on people of color, the Black and Brown communities. That fact is really what brought us together, and she was very impressed by what we had accomplished.”

González said Harris pressed the Texas legislator for strategies to defend voting that could also work in other states.

At one point, González recalled, the vice president looked at the gathered legislators and asked them: “What are you going to do if the federal legislation doesn’t pass?”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.