Americans showed up in record numbers to vote last year amid a deadly pandemic. Many voted by mail for the first time; others cast ballots early at in-person locations. It was the highest voter turnout in a century as voters chose new leadership.
And the backlash to that unprecedented participation was swift.
Fueled by former President Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ – including his pressure campaign to overturn the election – some Republican state legislators moved at a breakneck pace to put up new barriers to vote, many of which target voters of color. They introduced more than 380 restricting voting bills in 48 states, according to research at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. Some of the worst restrictions make it harder to vote by mail in Arizona, Georgia, and Florida; limit the availability of secure drop boxes in the latter two states plus Iowa and Indiana; even ban providing snacks and water to voters waiting in line in Florida and Georgia. So far, at least 22 new restrictive laws in 14 states are now on the books.
Congress has the power to respond and override many of these bad laws. The For The People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1) is transformative and comprehensive legislation that sets national standards for the freedom to vote, breaks the grip of big money in our politics, ends gerrymandering, and cleans up corruption by strengthening ethical standards in all three branches of government. Together with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – which will be introduced later this fall – Congress can take action to bolster democracy.
The For the People Act passed the House in March 2021 (and in 2019), had two Senate hearings, and is advancing to a full Senate vote as soon as next week. It has 49 cosponsors, one short of the 50 it needs to trigger a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Harris (which assumes defeating an anticipated filibuster).
The lone Democratic senator who has yet to cosponsor is Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, citing the process rather than the substance of the bill in a recent op-ed he published.
So, is that the end of the road? Absolutely not. It means it is all the more important to speak out. Just yesterday, Senator Joe Manchin offered his views on various policies he views as important in a legislative package on these issues.
No major piece of legislation’s path to victory is without turbulence, and the For the People Act is no different. It’s par for the course in our bicameral system, where many competing interests weigh in as Congress considers a bill.
Consider Senator Manchin’s investment in the issues at stake in this bill. He is a former Secretary of State responsible for election administration. With all of that experience, he cosponsored the For the People Act as recently as last year. He recognizes the danger in the wave of suppressive voting bills sweeping the states, saying this spring that “inaction is not an option.” He has called for expanded voter access of 15 days of early voting and for voting systems that are “accessible, free, fair, and secure.” He has said Congress should “do more to help those groups that have been historically disenfranchised and underrepresented in our federal elections.” He has also said that “we cannot discuss election integrity and public trust without mentioning the disturbing role money plays in our democracy. … Now, more and more lawmakers spend their time dialing for dollars, instead of legislating for their constituents. This never-ending battle to raise money to spend on reelection campaigns cheapens our elections. … That is why I have and will continually support changing our campaign finance rules.”
Senator Manchin has focused his concerns with the bill on process, rather than substance. Of course, it is important to strive for bipartisanship when passing meaningful legislation to strengthen democracy. That is what happened in the past, from the Help America Vote Act to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. The Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 2006 by a vote of 98-0 in the Senate.
But that entails a willingness by Senate Republicans to work together on these issues. Instead, the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has said that “one hundred percent of [his] focus is on stopping the new administration,” later declaring not only his opposition to the For The People Act, but also the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the full strength of the Voting Rights Act to block racially discriminatory voting practices from implementation. The restrictive voting laws advancing at the state level are backed by Republicans almost entirely.
If there are so few partners willing to negotiate in good faith – despite repeated efforts – Congress must still uphold its responsibility to protect democracy when the freedom to vote is under assault.
However, reflexive and partisan opposition from Capitol Hill Republicans does not mean the bill lacks bipartisan support. In fact, many of the solutions in the bill, like expanded access to vote-by-mail, access to early voting, election security mechanisms, disclosure of dark money, and citizen-funded elections, are in place in red states, blue states, and purple states.
Key leaders are supportive as well. President Biden pledged to “fight like heck with every tool at [his] disposal for its passage,” and Speaker Pelosi has repeatedly reaffirmed her commitment to the legislation, calling it “must pass” and “essential” to “stop [the] anti-democratic tide” and shepherding its passage through the House twice in two years.
Especially when a bill takes on power, change only happens from the bottom up. The solutions in the bill are broadly popular with the American public, including 79% of Senator Manchin’s constituents in West Virginia. Opponents of the bill have done their own research, and a leaked recording to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer demonstrates that because of public support, opponents instead planned to deploy “under-the-dome-type strategies” to try to defeat it.
One of those “under-the-dome-type strategies” is likely to be a filibuster – a procedural effort requiring 60 votes to even open a debate on the legislation. The filibuster is not in the Constitution. In fact, the Framers considered – and rejected – supermajority requirements to pass legislation. It was used most famously to block civil rights legislation. Senator McConnell supercharged its use over the past dozen years to impose a chokepoint on the legislative process.
Senator Manchin has shared his wish for the Senate to respect regular order. As such, he should allow the For the People Act to move through the ordinary legislative process. The bill has passed the House, was marked-up and amended in Committee (with five-out-of-ten adopted amendments coming from Senate Republicans), and deserves an up-or-down vote and debate on the Senate floor. Senator Manchin has supported ending filibusters on motions to proceed to legislation and has lamented how the chamber has become “paralyzed by the filibuster” in the past. Ultimately, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has committed to a floor vote this month. A return to regular order should mean that no supermajority requirement ought to be required to open debate on the legislation or otherwise secure its passage.
Senator Manchin, like all senators, will need to choose between failure to act versus pro-voter, anti-corruption legislation that will bring balance back to a democracy that is under assault. He should choose the latter before it is too late.