Sen. Joe Manchin has good ideas on voting rights, and one very bad idea

You’re reading Our View, one of two perspectives in Today’s Debate.

For the Opposing View, read “For the People Act will protect democracy.”

Joe Manchin has been right about voting rights reform. But then he’s also been very, very wrong.

The moderate Democratic senator from the deeply red state of West Virginia is spot on when he raises serious concerns about the bloated, partisan legislation known as the For the People Act, passed by the House as H.R.1 and up for a vote to advance it in the Senate Tuesday as S.1.

Manchin sent shock waves through the Democratic caucus when he wrote in a June 6 op-ed that he would not vote for S.1, which would prevent it from passing under any circumstances, including a rule change allowing it to become law with a simple majority vote in the Senate. 

Democratic wish list

That bill, while containing some valuable tools for safeguarding the right to vote, is indeed filled with a veritable Democratic wish list of ideas ranging from the good to the problematic to the bad. By some estimates, it’s the consummation of 60 election bills Democrats have proposed in the past.

And worse, Democratic sponsors have shown no interest negotiating any of it away to attract Republicans, assuming instead a take-it-or-leave posture, apparently confident that Manchin and other moderates in the Democratic wing would agree (or otherwise be browbeaten into accepting) a change in Senate rules allowing a bill to pass with a simple majority vote.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., at the U.S. Capitol on June 16, 2021. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Manchin, who has a right-leaning constituency to placate, has also made clear that he would not vote for any rule change that would kill the filibuster. The filibuster is a Senate parliamentary procedure that stalls legislation through debate, effectively killing it, unless 60 senators vote to end debate.

Manchin’s voter reform outline

The senator has a point when he says the legislation could be dramatically pared down. And to his credit, he produced an outline last week of a reduced voter reform package he would support. 

His proposal combines portions of S.1 with elements of another important election reform bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which Manchin says he supports and for which he says there is potentially bipartisan interest. 

The Lewis legislation is designed to restore and strengthen portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. Most important, it reestablishes the requirement that state changes to election procedures receive clearance by the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division to ensure that voting rights are not being infringed upon. 

Trump’s Big Lie on election

Remember that the widespread problems that portions of S.1 and the Lewis proposal were designed to correct have not gone away. Not by a long shot.

Republican state legislatures across the country – using as a pretext Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen because of unsubstantiated voter fraud (the truth is it was one of the most fair and free elections in recent history) – have been proposing or have passed scores of bills that effectively suppress voting access. In addition, structural biases in the electoral system persist where state legislatures (mostly, but not all, Republican) can create serpentine, gerrymandered districts designed to benefit the majority party. And, perhaps most troubling, legislators have also passed laws allowing legitimate voting results to be more easily challenged and potentially overturned, a tactic Trump unsuccessfully pursued following the 2020 election.

The For the People Act, as sprawling as it is, addresses only a portion of these crucial concerns. It would establish nationwide standards for mail-in balloting, voter registration, early voting and other access issues. And it would end gerrymandering. But S.1 does nothing about new states laws that allow state political leaders to throw out fair election results (although the Lewis proposal could help address this).

Manchin’s compromise included some pared-down elements of S.1, a slightly weakened version of the Lewis legislation and a few other proposals popular with conservatives. One of them is a sensible idea we have long endorsed, requiring voters to show some form of identification.

Fundamental to democracy

On balance, Manchin is at least making a good-faith effort to reach a compromise with Republican senators. And there should be a more bipartisan approach on an issue as vital as election reform.

As he says, “The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics.”

But this is where he’s very, very wrong: He also writes that “protecting this right, which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner.”

Fair enough. But one day after Manchin released his compromise proposal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected it. What if a slimmed-down election reform package attracts only one or two Republican senators, falling far short of the 60 votes required to end a filibuster and pass the legislation?

If that were to happen, it might be time for Manchin to consider some Senate rule changes: perhaps reducing the threshold for ending Senate debate to 55 votes instead of 60; or allowing a special exemption for momentarily lifting the filibuster rule – just for the election reform bill.

Because the right to vote, as Manchin has eloquently said, is fundamental and demands to be safeguarded.

USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff and the USA TODAY Network. Most editorials are coupled with an Opposing View, a unique USA TODAY feature.

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