POLITICS

Senate Democrats Introduce Joe Manchin-Led Voting Rights Compromise Bill

If Manchin can't find 10 Republicans to support his bill, the Freedom to Vote Act is heading toward a collision with the Senate's filibuster rules.

A group of eight Senate Democrats have introduced a new version of comprehensive voting rights legislation after months of negotiation to secure the support of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

The bill, now called the Freedom to Vote Act, is a streamlined version of the For The People Act, which the House passed in May and Senate Republicans blocked twice over the summer. It contains most of the former bill’s voting access enhancements, its ban on partisan gerrymandering and some of its campaign finance reforms. But it also adds new provisions — including a national standard for voter identification and protections against partisan election subversion — while jettisoning all of the federal ethics enhancements in the old bill.

Negotiations between Manchin and Democratic Sens. Amy Klobucher (Minn.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Raphael Warnock (Ga.), Alex Padilla (Calif.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Tim Kaine (Va.) and Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine) began over the summer, after Manchin announced his opposition to the For The People Act and then released an outline of provisions he could support in a compromise bill. The new Manchin-led bill released Tuesday largely sticks to this outline while maintaining some provisions from the old bill. 

“The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and the Freedom to Vote Act is a step in the right direction towards protecting that right for every American,” Manchin said in a statement. “As elected officials, we also have an obligation to restore peoples’ faith in our democracy, and I believe that the commonsense provisions in this bill ― like flexible voter ID requirements ― will do just that.”

Democrats’ push for voting rights legislation comes as Republican-led states pass a historic wave of new voting restrictions, which are based on former President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud that led to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol earlier this year. 

“Any threat to the democratic process is a threat to democracy itself,” King said in a statement. “In the face of state-level threats that undercut the fundamental right to vote for millions of Americans, we must act now to protect our democracy.”

The compromise bill contains three buckets of policies: voter access and election administration, election integrity, and civic participation and empowerment.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is at the center of the push for voting rights legislation with the new Freedom to Vote Act. 
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is at the center of the push for voting rights legislation with the new Freedom to Vote Act. 

The voter access and election administration section requires states to have automatic, online and same-day voter registration, at least 15 days of early voting (with accommodations for small and rural jurisdictions) and mail-in voting with minimum national standards. It requires states to count all provisional ballots, even if voters were in the wrong precinct. It restores voting rights to ex-felons upon release from prison and includes targeted provisions expanding access for communities with specialized needs, including disabled voters and Native Americans. The bill also includes provisions preventing election subversion and creating an affirmative right to vote, both introduced as stand-alone bills this summer.

The new bill also includes national standards for voter identification. Manchin’s compromise outline suggested the new bill might include a national voter identification requirement, even in states that currently do not require voter ID, but it does not. Instead, it sets a national standard for acceptable forms of identification in states that require identification to vote. This will expand the types of accepted identification in many states with restrictive voter identification laws.

The election integrity portion requires states to maintain voting machines with a verifiable paper trail, strengthens protections for ballot security, makes campaigns publicly report contacts with certain foreign nationals and puts in place cybersecurity standards for voting machines and election systems.

The civic participation and empowerment section of the bill contains provisions related to congressional redistricting and campaign finance. This includes a ban on partisan gerrymandering through the creation of new criteria states must follow in the redistricting process, and a requirement that the courts enforce these criteria. It also bans undisclosed “dark money” in elections, strengthens the ban on super PAC-candidate coordination, requires online tech platforms to disclose political advertising, reforms the Federal Election Commission (although does not replace it with a new five-member commission as the old bill did) and allows states to opt-in to a program for House candidates to obtain public funds to run for election.

The compromise means that all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus support the bill. Now comes the question of how to pass it.

When Manchin originally released his compromise outline in June, he claimed that a streamlined bill more focused on voting rights would attract bipartisan support from Republicans. He began shopping the new bill to Republicans last week, Politico reported

“If one of their arguments was that the For The People Act was too broad, well, here we go,” Padilla, the senator from California, told HuffPost.

Republicans universally opposed the For The People Act in 2019 and filibustered it twice in 2021. They universally opposed several provisions included in Manchin’s new Freedom to Vote Act, including banning partisan gerrymandering and undisclosed “dark money” in elections.

“I don’t think we should federalize elections,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters on Tuesday after saying she opposed the new bill despite liking some of its provisions. 

The new bill will go to the Senate floor soon. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday filed for cloture on the bill, setting up a vote next week. Unless Manchin finds 10 Republicans to vote for cloture, his bill will fall to a GOP filibuster. That will then set up a long-anticipated showdown over whether to eliminate or alter the Senate’s filibuster rules, which require 60 votes to start and end debate on most legislation. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) remain adamant in their opposition to changing the filibuster. But Schumer has said “failure is not an option” on voting rights.

“We’re going to be at that crossroads real quick if 10 Republicans don’t step up and do the right thing,” Padilla said.

President Joe Biden is ready to weigh in with pressure on filibuster-supporting Democrats to help them find a way to put voting rights legislation on his desk, according to Rolling Stone.

Igor Bobic contributed reporting.