As Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., asserted in his op-ed in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, the right to vote is fundamental to American democracy. Frustratingly though, Manchin’s announced refusal to vote for the For the People Act and, by extension, ending the filibuster, subverts our shared belief in the sacredness of that right.
Manchin alludes to the fact that state legislatures across the nation are moving to restrict voting, although he doesn’t discuss these efforts in detail. When discussing our nation’s need for the For the People Act, it is necessary to examine them critically. Following a spike of early and mail-in votes in the 2020 election because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 33 states have instituted restrictions to these voting methods, in addition to restrictions on traditional voting. Distrust in this election was sown largely by former president Donald Trump and congressional Republicans who were complicit in the president’s attempts to de-legitimize a fair and free election.
To be clear, these restrictions are not a response to an actual need for sweeping enhancements in election security — they are an attempt to disenfranchise people who might eventually vote against Republicans.
In Georgia, for example, Republicans passed a law that made it illegal to hand out food or water to people waiting in line to vote. While it might seem an innocuous policy, Georgia is a state that boasts an average voting wait time 2 1/2 times the national average. It takes, on average, 23 times longer to vote in Georgia than in Vermont. The only reason anyone could justify banning refreshment handouts in Georgia is if they didn’t want them to vote at all and are willing to ensure that by any means necessary.
Take Texas, whose Republicans attempted to eliminate “souls to the polls.” Their measures would have limited early voting hours to 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays, disabling a longtime practice by Black congregations that encourages members to vote after services. There is no reason to create such a measure other than to deprive Black folks of this voting opportunity. It failed to pass only because Texas House Democrats walked out of the session, meaning there weren’t enough people present for the legislature to hold a vote.
Republican lawmakers across the nation are promoting security measures to assuage election integrity fears they disingenuously stoked.
These illustrations of GOP desperation to manipulate elections evince an urgent need for significant election reform and, therefore, the For the People Act.
Manchin argues that, only through bipartisanship, can an acceptable voting rights solution be instituted and that a lack of bipartisanship is why he wouldn’t vote for the bill. He also floats less-sweeping election reform measures as alternatives. In an ideal world, I might agree that we should strive for cooperation, but that utopian reality is not the political atmosphere currently permeating the United States.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in May: “One hundred percent of my focus is standing up to ... what the new Biden administration is trying to do to this country.”
Given that rhetoric, why is Manchin surprised that no Senate Republicans have signed on to the For the People Act?
When Senate Republicans voted against the bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, Manchin called it “a betrayal” of their oaths of office. But is it a surprise, given that simply speaking out against the actions of Trump got Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., ousted from her leadership position? The GOP has made it clear that straying from partisan politics will result in retaliation from party leadership. We can’t reasonably expect their cooperation.
I understand not wanting to abolish the filibuster. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about for many of the same reasons Manchin discusses in his op-ed. What if it comes back to bite Senate Democrats down the road? Potential consequences aside, it conflicts with Manchin’s personal values of bipartisanship and cooperation, too.
However, Republicans at state and federal levels have made it increasingly clear that they are content to operate in bad faith. Because they are willing to do everything in their power to obstruct the Biden administration regardless of what is right for the nation, Manchin’s insistence on only moving forward with their cooperation helps them meet their obstructionist goals.
We can only have bipartisanship if we take steps to ensure that our electorate is represented fairly. In this case, that very well might mean abolishing the filibuster to achieve fair and free elections. I’m not saying such a move is desirable as much as it might be a necessary evil to achieve a truly representative democracy.
With that in mind, I and many of Manchin’s constituents urge him to reconsider supporting the For the People Act. The bill would halt and reverse efforts at voter disenfranchisement. It would make voting registration automatic, rather than something people might have to take off work or find child care to do. It would stop voter-roll purges, meaning registered voters couldn’t be selectively disenfranchised by their state governments. It would reenfranchise felons, destroying a method of disenfranchisement that disproportionately affects poor communities and people of color. It would improve election accessibility for people with disabilities, stop voter intimidation and restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Manchin’s right when he says it wouldn’t be a bipartisan vote. However, standing up for what is right often means that people will disagree. When others abandon their democratic principles, it’s Manchin’s responsibility as an elected senator to vote in the interest of our state, our nation and, ultimately, the continuity of our democracy.