The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Revised Democratic voting bill drops controversial provisions, tweaks others as pressure for action mounts

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) speaks with reporters after a Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony on Capitol Hill on Monday in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A group of Democratic senators — including key centrist Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — introduced a pared-down voting rights, campaign finance and government ethics bill Tuesday in hopes of building momentum for its passage through a closely divided Senate.

The new Freedom to Vote Act retains significant portions of the For the People Act, Democrats’ marquee voting legislation that passed the House this year but was blocked by a Republican filibuster in June. Those include mandating national minimum standards for early voting and vote-by-mail, establishing Election Day as a national holiday, and creating new disclosure requirements for “dark money” groups that are not now required to disclose their donors.

But it also discards significant pieces and tweaks others, largely in an effort to placate Manchin and indulge his hopes of building enough Republican support to pass the bill. Overcoming a filibuster absent a rules change would require the support of 10 Republicans in addition to the 50 members of the Democratic caucus.

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Those odds appeared remote Tuesday: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed anew to keep his party united in opposition to any federal voting legislation, and even some of the most moderate Republican senators whom Manchin has briefed on the new bill said they believed it went too far.

The Fix’s Amber Phillips breaks down how September is shaping up to be a busy legislative month for Congress as Democrats work to pass President Biden’s agenda. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“I represent a state with one of the highest turnouts in the country consistently, and yet we don’t have early voting,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “So I don’t see why the federal government should impose rules on a state and preempt state laws for a state that’s doing a great job.”

The changes to the bill, however, will allow Democrats to keep hope for action on voting rights alive for at least a few more weeks at a precarious moment for Senate Democrats, with the party eager to make progress on President Biden’s sweeping economic agenda while facing deadlines to fund the federal government and address the approaching debt ceiling in the coming weeks.

Some of the changes gut significant portions of the For the People Act: A public financing system for congressional campaigns that would match small donations with federal funds on a 6-to-1 basis has been scaled back to an optional program for House campaigns only, requiring states to choose whether to participate. State and local election officials would have a freer hand to purge voter rolls than under the initial bill, and a provision to change the makeup of the Federal Election Commission, moving from an even split between the parties to an odd number of members in a bid to break partisan gridlock, has been omitted from the revised bill.

While the original bill mandated that states use nonpartisan commissions to draw congressional district lines to prevent gerrymandering, the revised bill does not require commissions. It instead creates federal criteria for mapmaking, gives courts the power to enforce them, and allows states to choose how to comply, whether by using a commission or another method.

The new legislation also adds some new elements, including provisions meant to thwart state-level efforts in GOP-controlled states that some are warning could allow officials to override election results. Sections aimed at so-called election subversion would create federal protections for elections officials and create standards for the handing of election equipment and records that could forestall partisan audits such as the review of the 2020 presidential election results ordered by the Arizona Senate.

The Freedom to Vote Act does not include one controversial proposal that Manchin floated in June — a national voter identification mandate. Instead, the bill would create a national standard for the states that choose to require voter ID, allowing them to accept a range of documents as proof of identification, without requiring it in other states.

Democrats craft revised voting rights bill, seeking to keep hopes alive in the Senate

The revised bill emerges as Democrats face mounting pressure from advocates and from their own voters to address the series of state election laws passed in GOP-controlled states this year — a national effort to cut back on early voting, vote by mail, drop boxes and other ballot access measures in response to former president Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen 2020 election.

Meanwhile, states are already beginning the redistricting process without new federal standards in place to prevent partisan gerrymandering. Nonpartisan forecasters predict that would allow Republicans to net several House seats in the 2022 midterms, further imperiling the Democratic House majority.

The bill was hashed out over the summer by a group of senators that included Manchin and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, as well as Sens. Tim Kaine (D- Va.), Angus King (I-Maine), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.).

Klobuchar said in a statement that the Republican state laws “demand an immediate federal response,” and she thanked her fellow Democrats for arriving at a consensus product after weeks of negotiations. “Now let’s get it done,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) hosted several of the meetings and told reporters Tuesday he expects a procedural vote on the bill “very soon,” perhaps next week.

“Bottom line, this legislation is critical for stopping some of the most egregious assaults against voting rights from Republicans, exclusively Republicans, at the state level,” he said. “We need to move quickly here — time is of the essence. Every member knows that.”

But Schumer refrained from discussing further steps, including a possible showdown over whether to get rid of the filibuster — noting that Manchin now had the opportunity to seek GOP support for the legislation.

“If that doesn’t happen, we’ll move — we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said, adding that “all options are on the table.”

Still, no Republican has emerged as even being curious about supporting new federal voting legislation of the breadth that Democrats are contemplating. Collins said she could support narrow parts of the bill dealing with the disclosure of political donors and preventing foreign election interference but not a broader set of federal election mandates.

Top party leaders, including McConnell, have insisted that no new national election legislation is necessary, and there is no expectation in the Democratic ranks that next week’s vote will succeed in advancing the bill.

“There is no rational basis for the federal government taking over how we conduct elections in this country,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “It is a solution in search of a problem, and we will not be supporting that.”

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What is less clear is what will happen next: Voting rights advocates and many Democrats are hoping the sustained GOP opposition will create a put-up-or-shut-up moment for Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who have both vocally opposed changing the Senate rules to allow legislation to pass with a simple majority vote.

There are no obvious reasons to think that either senator is on the cusp of changing their minds, and with Biden’s economic agenda hanging in the balance, there is little incentive for top party leaders to engage in hardball tactics — at least not yet.

Manchin on Tuesday said he was not dissuaded by the continued Republican opposition — including from Collins, a frequent negotiating partner. “We got to keep talking,” he said. “That’s why we’re called a deliberative body.”

Merkley said in an MSNBC interview Monday night that the drama could play out for many more weeks as Democrats debate among themselves about next steps.

“The dialogue will begin,” he said. “How do we honor our responsibility to defend the fundamental rights of all Americans? . . . And that’s going to take some time to work that out. But I really believe that we have to, before the month of October is out — we have to get this voting rights legislation done.”