For months, Democrats in the U.S. Senate danced delicately around Joe Manchin, giving him space and raising hopes that the West Virginia Democrat would eventually show up and give his vote, which he should win, to legislation that would be the most extensive protection of voting rights in a generation.
This detente virtually ended on Sunday, when Manchin was the author of a paper that said he would not vote on the bill, leaving Democrats to find a new way forward – that is, if there is one.
Manchin did not raise significant concerns about the law, the People’s Act, in the Senate, but rather said he would only support it if it was bipartisan. He also reiterated his opposition to the abolition of the filibuster, a legislative rule that requires 60 votes to move most legislation in the Senate. Getting 10 Republicans to sign under the voting rights law is a silly task, many observers say, pointing to how the party perceives Trump’s baseless lies about the election and is actively trying to make voting difficult.
“Republicans’ intolerance of the right to vote is no excuse for inaction, and Senator Manchin must wake up to that fact,” said Karen Hobart Flynn, president of the Common Cause, a government control group that supports the bill.
Manchin’s disobedience comes at a time when there are urgent concerns about the health of American democracy. Republicans have introduced hundreds of bills across the country to restrict access to the ballot, including expansion measures in Florida and Georgia and Texas. There is also growing concern about Republicans’ attempts to take over the election machine, including offices that could allow them to block winning candidates from being properly employed.
Monder Jones, a freshman and progressive congressman from New York, sharply criticized Manchin for not doing enough to protect voting rights when it became clear that they had been attacked. “The Manchin operator could also be titled ‘Why would I vote to keep Jim Crow,'” he wrote on Twitter.
Manchin’s comments came just days after Joe Biden made a new effort to push for a defense of the vote, saying he would “fight like hell” for them and appointing Vice President Kamala Harris to the White House. Manchin’s colleagues in the Senate have made it clear that they are disappointed with his decision, but have left the door open for a shortened bill that may be acceptable to Manchin (and thus some Republicans). “The fight is not over,” Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, said in a statement.
“I wholeheartedly want this bill not to be needed or for Senate Republicans to join us in defending Americans’ right to vote,” Jeff Merkley, a Democratic senator from Oregon, said in a statement. “As I have told many of my colleagues many times, I am open to any discussion about the provisions of this bill and I will not give up American democracy.”
Manchin suggested some hints as to what an acceptable bill might look like. In March, he passed provisions in the People Act that require at least 15 days of early voting and protect Indian voting rights. He also supported some provisions that require greater transparency in campaign spending.
However, Manchin’s statement in March said nothing about new restrictions on heavy manipulation of constituency borders for guerrilla gain, a process often called gerimanding. Lawyers see these defenses as critical, especially since the Supreme Court first ruled only two years ago that there is no limit to how party lawmakers can be. The once-a-decade redistribution cycle is set to begin later this year, and Republicans have a significant advantage in drawing and are likely to distort areas in their favor.
Manchin also supports separate legislation that will renew a provision in the Voting Rights Act that will require seats with a proven record of voting discrimination in order to pre-approve changes to the vote by the federal government before they take effect. “Inaction is not an option,” Manchin said in a letter, reaffirming his support for such a bill, published with Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska. But even with Murkowski’s support, the bill is unlikely to get 60 votes. Proponents of the vote support the bill as a way to prevent future discrimination in voting, but say it alone would do nothing to lift restrictions already in place.
The pressure on Manchin will only escalate in the coming weeks. Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Senate majority, pledged to submit the bill for a vote later this month, which could force Manchin to vote with Republicans to block the bill. And some experts have accepted the passage of a more closely aligned law as a viable way to carry out some Senate voting reforms.
“If Senator Manchin thinks there should be more input from Republicans – as was the case in the Senate’s mark last month, when the committee passed several Republican amendments – you do so by introducing the bill into the legislative process,” said Stephen Spaulding, Sr. lawyer for public policy and state affairs in a general case.
“Senator Manchin must vote to bring the bill into full debate, not discuss the bill with his Republican counterparts.”