Far too many Republicans are players in a cynical pantomime: They say that the new voting restrictions being passed across the nation are designed solely to thwart widespread voting fraud, when the reality is that widespread fraud does not exist and the new restrictions’ purpose is to frustrate and disadvantage voters who lean Democratic — especially minority, young and lower-income voters.
Are Democrats going to do a darn thing about it? We’ll soon find out.
Republicans in Congress have repeatedly rejected measures to make voting fairer, more accessible and more secure. In state after state, the party has spent this year pushing laws that tighten ballot access — at least for certain groups — and that make the system more vulnerable to partisan meddling.
This antidemocratic (and anti-Democratic) agenda began before President Donald Trump, but he supercharged it. Now, the former president and his supporters — who tried unsuccessfully to overturn the last election by lying about fraud and trying to strong-arm state officials and Congress into flipping electoral votes — have continued their crusade against democracy at the state and local levels. In the recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, Republicans began floating bogus claims of fraud long before the votes were tallied. “Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?” Mr. Trump charged Monday, on the eve of Election Day. Urging voters to mistrust the system and to reject the outcome if they dislike it has become standard operating procedure for the G.O.P.
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats rolled out a reform bill aimed at curbing the madness. The Freedom to Vote Act, introduced by Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, would address longstanding flaws in the electoral system along with some of the Republicans’ recent machinations. It is a compromise proposal of sorts, crafted by a coalition of moderates and progressives after a more sweeping reform bill, the For the People Act, was blocked in June by a Republican filibuster. This slimmed-down package jettisons some of the more controversial elements of the earlier plan. It would not, for instance, restructure the Federal Election Commission or mandate the use of nonpartisan commissions for congressional redistricting. It is nonetheless an ambitious, urgently needed corrective to Republicans’ ongoing assault on the franchise.
The package’s provisions range from making Election Day a public holiday to protecting local election officials from partisan interference. Partisan gerrymandering and voter caging, a sketchy method of purging voting rolls, would be banned. Same-day voter registration would be available in all states, as would automatic voter registration systems. A 30-minute wait-time limit would be imposed for in-person voting, and uniform, flexible ID requirements would be established in states that require voter IDs. The list goes on.
Federal voting protections wouldn’t just protect voters in red states. Blue and purple states with less liberal standards would have to up their game as well. For instance, neither Connecticut nor New Hampshire currently provides for early in-person voting, nor does New Hampshire have online voter registration. Wisconsin has a strict photo ID law. New York does not have same-day voter registration (though voters have the opportunity to move to change that in November). Federal standards would serve all voters in all states and of all electoral hues.
“Put simply, if the new bill is enacted, more citizens will be able to register to vote, vote in person and by mail and have their votes counted,” asserted Marc Elias, one of the Democrats’ top legal champions on voting rights. “And, those of us fighting suppression laws in court will have the tools necessary to achieve fast, consistent victories for voters when states fail to follow the law.”
Merits aside, the new bill’s prospects are shaky at best. To avoid death by filibuster, it needs the support of all 50 Democrats plus 10 Republicans. Absent that, Democrats will face a hard choice: Let this crucial legislation die or eliminate the legislative filibuster in order to pass the bill on a party-line vote.
This is a better dilemma, at least, than Democrats had to deal with over the summer, when they didn’t even have their entire caucus on board. While 49 Democratic senators supported the For the People Act, one, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, opposed it. As a conservative Democrat representing a deep-red state that Mr. Trump carried by close to 40 points last year, Mr. Manchin’s policy priorities often clash with those of his Democratic colleagues. But while there were some pieces of the For the People Act that made Mr. Manchin uneasy, his primary objection was that it lacked buy-in from Republicans.
“The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics,” Mr. Manchin wrote in a June 6 opinion essay in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “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.”
He went on to denounce those who wanted him to help eliminate the filibuster to pass the bill. “The truth is there is a better way,” he insisted, “if we seek to find it together.”
Bipartisanship is a big issue for Mr. Manchin — unsurprising, since his job security depends on appealing to voters who typically support the other party. He is correct that, even in today’s Senate, there can be agreement in areas where both parties are committed to making progress. Take the bill to bolster U.S. competitiveness with China that passed in June with strong bipartisan support, or the $1 trillion infrastructure plan that passed with similar bipartisan backing last month.
But there are limits to bipartisanship, and the system comes up hard against those limits on the issue of voting rights. Yet Mr. Manchin has continued his search. In June, he put forward an alternative framework for reform that he felt had more bipartisan promise. Key Republicans promptly dismissed it.
Meanwhile, their colleagues in the states are seizing the moment. Republican-controlled legislatures already have passed laws restricting ballot access in at least 18 states. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas recently signed a raft of measures that the head of the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank in New York, declared “the most extreme of the voting restrictions passed by legislatures this year.”
Undeterred, Mr. Manchin, at the behest of Senate leadership, huddled with colleagues to hammer out the revised plan that’s now on the table.
Having waited for Mr. Manchin to get behind a bill, the majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is now eager to move forward. He says a vote on the new package could take place within the week.
Mr. Schumer has also made clear that he considers this Mr. Manchin’s moment to try to drum up whatever bipartisan support he can. “He has always said that he wants to try and bring Republicans on, and now, with the support of Democrats and this compromise bill — which Senator Manchin had great input into — he can go forward in that regard,” Mr. Schumer said Tuesday.
No one expects Mr. Manchin’s gambit to succeed. But if his earnest outreach to Republicans fails, where does the senator go from there? Will he simply shrug and sacrifice voting rights on the altar of bipartisanship? Will he bow to a minority party pursuing antidemocratic measures to advance its partisan fortunes? “The senator continues to work with his bipartisan colleagues to protect the right to vote for every American while also restoring the American people’s faith in our democracy,” responded a spokesperson for Mr. Manchin.
Bipartisanship can be a means to an end. But when voting rights are being ratcheted backward by one party, bipartisanship can’t be an excuse for inaction.
President Biden is said to be ready to enter the fray. “Chuck, you tell me when you need me to start making phone calls,” he recently urged Mr. Schumer, according to Rolling Stone.
Now, Mr. President, is the time to act boldly. Make those calls. Set up those Oval Office chats with Mr. Manchin and any other Democrats who might still need persuading. Bring all the powers of persuasion and the weight of the office to bear on this issue before further damage is done.
Having lost the White House and the Senate last year, Republicans appear intent on rigging the game in their favor before the midterms. Protecting the integrity of America’s electoral system and the voting rights of its citizens should be priority No. 1 — not because it helps Democrats, but because it helps preserve democracy.
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