While the rest of the Senate Democrats fight for a sweeping voting rights protection bill, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is pushing for another bill that would restore elements of the Voting Rights Act based on the premise that at least one Republican supports it.
But the bill Manchin wants Democrats to prioritize, though important, would do nothing about the present attack on voting rights in Republican-run states.
Manchin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sent a letter to Senate colleagues seeking bipartisan support for a not-yet-introduced bill, dubbed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, to restore the current Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance authority, which would subject any proposed changes in voting rights in certain states and election jurisdictions to Justice Department review to guard against discriminatory effects. He also said last week that he won’t support the For the People Act, the package of voting rights, campaign finance, redistricting and ethics reforms that is the priority bill for Democrats.
Manchin argued that the bill named after Lewis, the late civil rights leader and Georgia congressman, is more likely to gain bipartisan support. Republicans largely oppose the For the People Act, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to kill it and all nine GOP members voted against it in committee. But Manchin’s proposed bill would need the backing of at least nine more Republicans, besides Murkowski, to avoid being blocked by a filibuster. That is highly unlikely.
Plus, prioritizing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would put it and the other voting reforms that Lewis championed in peril.
Manchin’s strategy is already facing some pushback.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) quickly rejected Manchin’s prioritization of one bill over the other in comments to reporters. Schumer has promised a floor vote on the For the People Act (also known as H.R. 1/S. 1) and has stated that “everything is on the table,” including changing the Senate’s filibuster rules, which Manchin opposes, in order to pass it.
First, the measure Manchin wants to prioritize, while key to protecting voting rights in the future, would, in its most recent form, apply only to future legislation, not the avalanche of voter suppression bills being passed and enacted now in Republican-run states. The For the People Act, on the other hand, would override many of the provisions of this legislation by mandating a set floor of voting access requirements for all states to meet.
Four Democratic House members sent a “Dear Colleague” letter on Thursday rebuking Manchin’s position while calling for Congress to pass both bills.
“Any proposal that shuns H.R. 1 in favor of nationwide preclearance alone is either dangerously naive or simply misinformed about what is happening in states across the country,” Reps. Mondaire Jones (N.Y.), Val Demings (Fla.), Colin Allred (Texas) and Nikema Williams (Ga.) wrote in the letter.
“Preclearance does nothing about the voter suppression laws that states have already enacted. Preclearance can only block new restrictions,” they added. “It does nothing to repair the damage states like Georgia and Florida have already done, and that other states will do prior to passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.”
Furthermore, some areas of voter access that the For the People Act expands and protects, like vote-by-mail, are so new that they lack the kind of record of discriminatory effect necessary to make them a part of a new pre-clearance formula, a congressional staffer working on both bills told HuffPost. This would mean that such restrictions could still pass even if pre-clearance authority is restored.
Manchin’s prioritization of one bill over the other also undermines the interdependence of both bills.
“The two of them are really important components and they work well together because they do different things,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit that backs both bills.
Where the For the People Act covers past actions in a way that the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act does not, the proposed bill covers as-yet-unknown efforts to suppress votes in a racially discriminatory fashion.
“There are a lot of things that the For the People Act would help, but once that happens that’s static,” Pérez said. “The pre-clearance provision guards against things that are not known.”
Even if the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance authority were to be restored, its enforcement is subject to the whims of the presidential administration and the courts. Past Republican administrations have routinely refused to seek strict adherence to the law’s pre-clearance authority, and the federal courts are now stacked with conservative justices appointed by former President Donald Trump who appear to be hostile to federal voting rights legislation.
Indeed, the reason for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is to respond to the conservative judiciary’s hostility to voting rights laws. The conservative Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance authority by a 5-4 vote in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.
In his decision in that case, Chief Justice John Roberts infamously declared that “the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” He added, “Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.” (The actual record contradicts this assertion, as the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her Shelby County dissent.)
While Roberts declared blatant racial discrimination over, the court’s ruling left it up to Congress to write a new formula identifying discriminatory practices that could be used by the Department of Justice and the courts in a restored pre-clearance system. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act aims to do that.
But to ensure that the bill meets the standards set out by the court, Democrats are slowly working to build an evidentiary record to support the new pre-clearance formula that will be written into the bill. This is the reason why the Manchin-backed bill has not been introduced yet.
House Democrats hope to finish building that evidence by the end of the summer and to introduce the bill around the end of August or early September. House passage would follow further committee hearings on the introduced bill.
This schedule means that Manchin’s likely doomed efforts to secure significant Republican support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act could lead Democrats into the fall or winter before they see any possible resolution of their push to expand and protect voting rights. In that time, Republicans will continue to roll back those rights in the states.