Democrats’ sweeping plans for a national elections and campaign finance overhaul in response to Republicans’ state-level efforts to restrict voting are running into a familiar problem: Sen. Joe Manchin.
The West Virginia Democrat told ABC News this week he won’t support the For The People Act, which would set minimum national standards for ballot access, because it lacks bipartisan support. And without all 50 Democratic senators on board, the bill cannot even advance to the Senate floor for a vote.
Instead, Manchin said he wants Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a narrower Democratic bill that would restore federal oversight of state changes to election laws. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in a 5-4 decision backed by conservatives.
But even the idea of restoring the VRA is sure to face fierce GOP opposition, raising the question whether any voting laws will pass in this Congress.
“That is a way to do through the back door what [the For The People Act] is trying to do through the front door,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said when asked if he could support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. “In other words, it will completely pluck the authority to conduct elections and change election laws from the states and give it to the Department of Justice.”
Cornyn predicted none of his Republican colleagues would sign on to Manchin’s preferred alternative, noting the Supreme Court, which is now controlled by an even bigger conservative majority, would also likely have its say if the legislation became law.
Fellow Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told HuffPost he is as uninterested in the John Lewis bill as he is in the For The People Act.
“I think South Carolina has earned the right to be free from the bureaucracy of pre-approval,” Graham said.
Until the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required states with a history of racial disenfranchisement, such as South Carolina, to get the Justice Department or a federal court to sign off on changes to their voting laws. The high court said the law’s formula for determining which states were subject to pre-clearance requirements was out of date. The John Lewis bill would set up a new formula.
Senate Democrats held a caucus meeting on Thursday to plot the path forward on voting rights, an issue they believe is paramount to the survival of democracy ahead of the 2022 and 2024 elections. Republican-led states, including Georgia, Texas and Iowa, have already passed restrictive measures in recent months reducing access to the ballot and winding back voter accommodations made as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. More GOP states are likely to follow.
Without total party unity among Democrats, however, the issue is likely to languish in the Senate.
Manchin’s Democratic colleagues say they agree on the need to protect voting rights, but they sounded unenthusiastic about passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act instead of the broader For The People Act, known as S.1, which includes other changes.
“The Voting Rights Act is important and we should pass it, but it does not substitute for S.1. S.1 is about other features of voting suppression, gerrymandering, same-day registration. That’s not what John Lewis is about,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told HuffPost when asked how the party can overcome Manchin’s position on voting.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the top Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee, which marked up the For The People Act this week, insisted Democrats can pass “both at once.” She did not explain how.
The For The People Act would disallow states from implementing almost all of the changes they are making in response to ex-President Donald Trump’s Big Lie about how the 2020 election was stolen from him. The bill would require things like automatic voter registration and voting by mail with no excuse, for example. The John Lewis bill, by contrast, wouldn’t automatically take the recent state changes off the books.
“The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act builds for us a fire station to protect us against future fires,” Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) said Thursday. “But the house of democracy, as a result of the voter suppression bills all across the country, is on fire right now.”
Manchin has previously said Congress shouldn’t do anything to make voters more distrustful of the voting process after Trump supporters attacked Congress on Jan. 6 because they believed Trump’s lies about the election.
“You see states basically following up on that attack by trying to disenfranchise people, and it’s all based on the same big lie,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told HuffPost. “The way you fight against that is protect people’s voting rights.”