Advocates in West Virginia and nationwide continue to press Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on passing voting rights legislation before the chance of having any effect on the 2022 election ends.
The Senate on Wednesday did not reach the 60 required votes to break the filibuster and begin debate on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which seeks to combat allegedly racially discriminatory voting laws drafted in state legislatures. Only Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski crossed the aisle to vote for cloture on the bill, which would end debate and call for a vote.
Manchin is one of two Senate Democrats who still oppose ditching the filibuster, which would reduce the number of votes needed to pass legislation to 50. With primary elections beginning as soon as March 2022, advocates say the window for change is about to slam shut.
“Time is very much of the essence,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy group calling on Congress to act immediately on voting rights legislation. Waldman said the Freedom to Vote Act, coupled with the Voting Rights Advancement Act, are the “most significant democracy reform legislation in at least half a century.”
The Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the core of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the Supreme Court struck down eight years ago for being out of date. Under the 1965 bill, states and localities marked for consistently passing discriminatory voting laws were required to secure preclearance from the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., before they could enact any new voting laws. The proposed bill would modernize the criteria for determining which states and localities have a pattern of discrimination.
Eight Democrat senators, including Manchin, introduced the Freedom to Vote Act on Sept. 14. The proposed bill would enact sweeping changes and create national standards for elections. Some of the bill’s provisions include making Election Day a public holiday, ensuring voters have at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections, enacting automatic voter registration and online voter registration, ensuring all voters can request a mail-in ballot, requiring a consistent form of voter identification, banning gerrymandering and closing dark-money and corporate-spending loopholes in elections.
Manchin, who served as West Virginia’s chief elections official from 2001 to 2005, is a key architect of the Freedom to Vote Act. Many of West Virginia’s voting laws, which are rated strong nationally, are included in the bill. He said in June that he would not support the For the People Act, the more expansive voting rights legislation championed by almost all Democrats. Manchin said he sees the proposed bill as a compromise that Republicans can support.
Any voting rights legislation faces a steep uphill climb. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., on Thursday maintained her stance against the Freedom to Vote Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act. She cited high turnout in the 2020 election and in this year’s state and local races, saying that Democrats filed the bills for partisan reasons and as “a solution in search of a problem.”
In a statement Friday, Manchin said he plans to continue trying for 60 votes on the Voting Rights Advancement Act. He did not address advocates’ calls to break the filibuster and pass both bills as soon as possible.
“In the weeks and months ahead, I am committed to building support for this bipartisan compromise that addresses the threats to voting rights across our nation, without infringing on states’ rights, so that it can move through regular order with bipartisan support, just as it has done for the last 56 years,” he said.
Based on the laws passed by state legislatures in 2021, Waldman said he expects legislatures to ramp up their efforts starting in January. Twenty-three states are controlled by a House-Senate-gubernatorial GOP trifecta.
“We have every reason to suspect a new wave of attempted voter suppression laws,” he said.
The Brennan Center tallied 33 laws passed in 19 states this year that it said make it harder for Americans to vote. These include imposing new or more stringent criminal penalties on election officials, criminal charges for people who return ballots on behalf of others, like people living with a disability, and restricting poll workers’ ability to stop harassment by poll watchers.
Senate Republicans allege that both bills are federal overreach, infringing on states’ rights to run their own elections. Advocates stand by their urgency to pass such legislation, given the uncertain future of a federal Democrat trifecta and the fast-approaching election cycle.
These bills are not about taking control away from states passing good-faith legislation, said Dan Weiner, an elections reform expert at the Brennan Center. These bills will deflect the coming bad-faith laws that make voting more complicated, he said.
“Elections are run by states and counties, and will continue to be, but there’s an important role for national standards,” Weiner said.
The Freedom to Vote Act’s strongest provisions are its protections against gerrymandering, Waldman said. The bill also allocates funding for states and counties to run their elections and pay their employees and poll workers, which was an early concern lawmakers had with implementing nationwide regulations.
“Local election officials — if you’re going to put requirements on them — they need the funds to carry out those requirements,” Weiner said.
Texas’ bill disproportionately burdens Latino, Black and Asian voters, the Brennan Center found, by decreasing election officials’ flexibility to make changes in large Democrat areas of the state, but increasing things like early voting hours in smaller, more Republican counties. In Georgia, the secretary of state was stripped of his role as chief elections officer, and that power now lies with partisans. The state legislature also was given increased oversight of ballot returns.
Becky Ceperley, Charleston City Council president and former national president of the League of Women Voters, said states are still using the same legislative trickery they’ve been using for hundreds of years.
“Right now, we’re seeing a huge regression back into that, back to the types of things that we saw in the past to keep people out of the election booth,” she said.
“West Virginia has strong laws,” Waldman said, “but, in states across the country right now, there’s a move to make it harder for people to vote.”
Ceperley said all West Virginians should support the rest of the country using its successful election framework.
“It’s not equal justice under the law if we have a great process and Texas has a terrible one,” she said.
Takeiya Smith, founder of Young West Virginia Forward, said West Virginians need the protections given under both bills. She said permanently expanding mail-in ballots will help meet the needs of those who live in rural areas.
Smith also took issue with Manchin’s continued protection of the filibuster, which she said has always been used as a tool to block racial justice legislation. Smith said Manchin needs to accept the reality that any expansive voting rights bill will not get bipartisan support in this current Congress.
“And it’s like — what level of racial discrimination does he feel is acceptable? There’s no level of racial discrimination that’s acceptable,” Smith said.
The most favorable provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act deal with curbing dark-money spending in elections. An estimated $1 billion in dark money flooded into the 2020 election, with more than half of that pot benefitting Democrats. Capito said this is one arena she could see herself working in, but after bills like the $1 trillion infrastructure bill are signed into law.
“There’s too much money in politics, we know that,” Capito said. “And so maybe that’s a discussion for another day.”
Shana Gallagher, executive director of Un-PAC, a nationwide youth-led organization dedicated to ending dark money in politics, said the Freedom to Vote Act contains crucial provisions that target dark-money spending. Gallagher, who lives in Huntington, said both parties should work together to fix something the majority of Americans believe is a huge problem.
“Both parties are operating in this broken system,” Gallagher said. “We believe that, in our political system, we should always know where that money is coming from.”
After 11 months operating in the current Congress, Waldman said, the time has come. No Republicans voted to allow for debate on the Freedom to Vote Act, which he said proves the nature of the fight they’re up against. For the smaller of the two bills, he echoed Manchin’s call in May that “inaction is not an option” on the Voting Rights Advancement Act.
“Sen. Manchin has played a central role in crafting important, urgently needed legislation. He has worked diligently to reach across the aisle to try to achieve bipartisan consensus. He’s been rebuffed. And there comes a point where, if we’re going to protect voting rights in our country, there’s no substitute for action,” Waldman said.
The Rev. Darick Biondi, of Charleston, said it’s on Manchin to ensure every American has the equal right to cast a ballot. Biondi said he’s praying the senator finds the moral courage and strength through God to pass these two bills, even as Manchin weighs multiple trillion-dollar bills. This simply cannot wait until the election after next, Biondi said, because there’s no guarantee a voting bill will ever pass on the country’s current track.
“If not now,” he said, “when?”