Can Joe Manchin of All People Trigger a Breakthrough on Voting Rights?

Joe Manchin, an obstructionist stooge yesterday, a potential voting rights facilitator today? Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Democrats frustrated by a lack of progress on landmark voting-rights proposals have trained a lot of their fire on Joe Manchin. He is the sole Senate Democrat opposing the For the People Act (S.1), a smorgasbord of voting and election changes, and a crucial opponent of the filibuster reforms that might make it possible to pass less ambitious legislation despite Republican obstruction, such as the John Lewis Voting Right Act. Now, all of a sudden, Manchin has unveiled a comprehensive “compromise” proposal on voting rights that could become a vehicle for getting something done in this area after all.

As is generally the case in such legislative hamburger jobs, Manchin’s proposal has something to offend and attract people in both parties. Some Republicans will be pleased by a beefed-up voting ID requirement, a laissez-faire attitude towards voter roll purges, some fairly limited allowances for proactive mailing of absentee ballots without a prior application, and new restrictions on the Justice Department’s power to veto voting and election law procedures under a restored Voting Rights Act. But the fact that Rick Hasen, a progressive voting rights advocate and election law expert, instantly urged Democrats to “grab the deal” indicates this may be the best chance available in this Congress, as is this reaction:

While Pelosi’s stamp of approval is essential to any legislative progress for the Manchin proposal, Georgia voting rights champion Stacey Abrams gave it the moral sanction it also needs, as Politico reports:

In an interview on CNN, Abrams — a former Democratic nominee for Georgia governor who founded an organization to fight voter suppression — said she “absolutely” could support the changes to the For the People Act that Manchin (D-W.Va.) outlined in a memo circulated among colleagues on Wednesday.

“What Sen. Manchin is putting forward are some basic building blocks that we need to ensure that democracy is accessible no matter your geography,” Abrams said.

At Slate, Hasen notes a number of positive key features of the Manchin proposal, “including a requirement of 15 days of early voting in federal elections, automatic voter registration, limits on partisan gerrymandering, and improved campaign finance disclosure.” I’d add to that list the establishment of Election Day as a public holiday, and the partial restoration of the Voting Rights Act provisions gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. There remain some serious omissions, and areas in which the devil may be in the details. But at this point what the voting rights debate needs is, well, a starting point for debate, and Manchin may have supplied one.

Basically Manchin needs enough Democratic encouragement to begin marketing his plan to Senate Republicans at a time when no one in that conference supports S.1, and only one, Lisa Murkowski, supports the John Lewis Act. Perhaps if he can make progress it would encourage him to make the big leap and endorse lowering the threshold for ending a filibuster from 60 to 55 votes, as he has occasionally said he was “open” to doing. There could be lots of ancillary benefits for Democrats if that were to happen.

At this point, as the Senate prepares for what is expected to be a by-the-numbers polarized debate on S. 1, the most important thing may be Manchin’s shift from being a sanctimonious critic of his party’s legislative proposals to becoming a constructive positive voice with specific ideas. As NBC News reported: “Manchin’s proposal came as a welcome surprise to Democrats and activists pushing for passage of the For the People Act, who saw it as an opening to reshape the bill to win his support.” That may be too optimistic, but as Hasen remarked, it’s no time “to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And Joe Manchin’s counteroffer is pretty, pretty good.”

Can Joe Manchin Trigger a Breakthrough on Voting Rights?