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Sen. Joe Manchin

Photo by MDGovpics (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia officially announced in an op-ed Sunday that he would vote against the For the People Act, infuriating progressive critics who view the bill as a crucial tool for countering the Republican Party's anti-democratic tactics.

But Manchin's announcement wasn't particularly surprising, as he has repeatedly signaled that he was not fully supportive of the bill and prefers the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a more modest proposal. Even more critically, though, he has insisted that he doesn't want to end the filibuster, the Senate rule requiring 60 votes to pass a bill, which would've doomed the For the People Act whether Manchin supported it or not. No Republican senators support the bill, and at least 10 would be needed for join all 50 Democrats to pass it into law under the current filibuster rule.

It wasn't just Manchin's opposition to the For the People Act that infuriated his critics, though. The particular arguments he gave struck many as weak, condescending, and hypocritical.

He insisted that any voting rights legislation that will pass must be bipartisan. He warned: "Whether it is state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting or politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections, partisan policymaking won't instill confidence in our democracy — it will destroy it."

But he refused to answer the simple and natural question that this demanded raises: What if congressional Republicans refuse to support any voting rights legislation?

He wrote:

I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act. Furthermore, I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster. For as long as I have the privilege of being your U.S. senator, I will fight to represent the people of West Virginia, to seek bipartisan compromise no matter how difficult and to develop the political bonds that end divisions and help unite the country we love.
American democracy is something special, it is bigger than one party, or the tweet-filled partisan attack politics of the moment. It is my sincere hope that all of us, especially those who are privileged to serve, remember our responsibility to do more to unite this country before it is too late.

But he didn't acknowledge that "partisan voting legislation" is already being passed across the country. Republicans are rewriting the voting rules in state legislatures where they have total control, redesigning the process to fit their own partisan purposes. They hope to make it much easier for their own party to win control, and there are even indications that their policies could make it easier for Republicans to steal elections if they don't win. And Republicans are also poised to redraw congressional districts across the country to increase their advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives to be even greater than it already is, further making Congress even less representative and less democratic than it already is.

By blocking any effort from Democrats in Congress to reform voting rights, Manchin is guaranteeing that these partisan efforts by Republicans at the state level to reshape our elections to fit their desires will largely succeed. He says any federal legislation to reform voting rights must be bipartisan, but why would Senate or House Republicans do anything to weaken the advantage they have in control of state governments? Instead of insisting on bipartisanship, what Manchin is really insisting on is unilateral surrender by the Democratic Party. And if the GOP uses the opportunity to entrench their power, it may be a long time before Democrats can ever get it back.

And Manchin's demands are patently absurd on their face. For example, he wrote:

Democrats in Congress have proposed a sweeping election reform bill called the For the People Act. This more than 800-page bill has garnered zero Republican support. Why? Are the very Republican senators who voted to impeach Trump because of actions that led to an attack on our democracy unwilling to support actions to strengthen our democracy? Are these same senators, whom many in my party applauded for their courage, now threats to the very democracy we seek to protect?

There are seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump because he inspired an attack on the U.S. Capitol to overthrow the 2020 presidential election. Manchin believes that this suggests they are willing to "strengthen our democracy" — but there's no reason to think this is true. Opposing Trump's brazen abuse of power and literal threat to the lives of U.S. lawmakers doesn't suggest that those Republicans don't also support restricting democracy in various ways or even even finding less violent ways to overturn elections. Many Republicans are happy to restrict democracy, even if they think Trump went too far. And Manchin and the Democrats weren't even able to convince all seven of those Republicans to support a commission to study the insurrection, further demonstrating the fact that their votes to convict didn't show a lasting good faith commitment to democracy.

Even still, had all seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump supported a bipartisan voting rights bill, that wouldn't be enough to pass under Manchin's demand to keep the filibuster. Manchin's standard requires at least 10 Republicans support any bill — which means he's insisting that Democrats let Republicans who voted to let Trump get away with the insurrection have a veto over voting rights laws.

Manchin promoted the John Lewis bill as an alternative to the For the People Act, touting it as "bipartisan." But he can only name one Republican senator who has come out in support of the bill — Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. No other Republican seems interested, and even Murkowski's interest appears tepid. And there's no sign that she or Manchin is doing the hard work to get nine other Republicans to vote in favor of the bill so it could actually pass in the face of a filibuster.

As Fox News' Chris Wallace pointed out on Sunday, Manchin has actually made the job of getting bipartisan agreement on a voting rights bill much harder by coming out firmly against reforming the filibuster. If he left open the possibility that he might support eliminating it were bipartisan negotiations to fail, Republicans would have more of an incentive to actually agree to a deal.

Since Manchin has taken filibuster reform off the table, though, Republicans know exactly what will happen at the federal level on voting rights if they refuse to play ball: nothing. At the state level, Republican legislatures will have free rein. Manchin is guaranteeing more partisanship in voting rights law, not less.

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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