What Joe Manchin Wants To Do About Voting

A look at Sen. Manchin’s memo on voting and election legislation, and why Democrats should consider it.

Hello there, 101PCers! It’s been a month since the last piece and I’m sorry for the hiatus. I am juggling a research project and training a new puppy (picture at the end). But I did want to quickly look at some news that broke this week.

For months, Democratic senators have been pursuing ways to convince Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to support S. 1, or the For the People Act. Recently, Manchin wrote in an op-ed for a local paper that he would not support S. 1 in its current form, despite having cosponsored it in a previous Congress.

For these reasons (and others), Manchin has proven to be a headache for his party and advocacy groups looking to protect voting rights. However, possibly as a response to communal criticism that his op-ed on S. 1 didn’t spell out what he did or did not like about the bill, Manchin recently met with advocacy groups and Republican senators to find some middle ground. He also released this memo that outlines some changes he would like to see to S. 1 and a separate voting rights bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. (I won’t be focusing on this second bill at length.)

Let’s explore some of these changes he proposed and compare them to the existing versions of these bills. These are not an exhaustive look at the existing bills, FYI.

Manchin’s changes to S. 1

There are a bunch provisions Manchin lists, including 13 under voting legislation. Some are already included in S. 1, like making Election Day a federal holiday. I want to highlight ones that would strengthen voting, ones that would not, and notable things Manchin wants excluded.

Notable good stuff:

  • Require 15 days of early voting for federal elections
  • Require automatic voter registration through DMVs
  • Ban partisan gerrymandering (Manchin just says states should use “computer modeling”)
  • Increase penalties related to voter intimidation
  • Enact the DISCLOSE Act (which tightens restrictions on dark money) and expand federal campaign disclosure requirements
  • Enact stronger restrictions of lobbying by executive branch members and family

Bad stuff:

  • Require voter ID with alternatives to traditional identification (he gives a utility bill as an example)
  • Allow “maintenance of voter rolls” by states using info from state and federal documents

Manchin’s exclusions:

  • Restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders, or returning citizens
  • Recognition of findings in favor of D.C. statehood
  • Public finances for election campaigns
  • Lowering the number of seats on the Federal Election Commission from six to five
Sidebar on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act

As is, this bill would restore a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was gutted in Shelby County v. Holder (2013). In that Supreme Court case, the majority found that federal “preclearance” of a state’s changes to voting laws is not constitutional. It’s a bit more complicated than this, but essentially SCOTUS decided at the time that the federal government could no longer police voting laws in states with a history of disenfranchisement. Sure enough, some states restricted voting following this ruling.

Manchin’s memo includes changes he’d like for this bill, like requiring the Attorney General to rely on a judicial finding to determine if a state or city is guilty of voting discrimination.

Discussion

When considering all of the stuff floating out there on Manchin and S. 1, I’m generally surprised by his idea for the bill. While there are some key changes he would like, a lot of what makes S. 1 good remains intact—stuff like automatic voter registration, tighter rules regarding campaign finances, and a ban on partisan gerrymandering. All of these would go far in changing our election system.

On the other hand, items he added to attract Republican support would be tough pills to swallow for Democrats. Requiring voter ID has long been a bright red line for them and voting rights activists, as such laws in states are said to discriminate against people of color while doing nothing about election integrity. But the overall effect of such laws on voter turnout isn’t totally determined. A 2019 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found voter turnout in places with ID requirements didn’t decrease between 2008 and 2018, although this could be because voting rights groups increased their advocacy efforts in response to the laws.

With that in mind, allowing voter roll “maintenance” is the graver issue with Manchin’s memo. To be direct, this would simply allow states to purge voter rolls. Arguably unconstitutional, purging voter rolls is the removal of voters from registration lists because they simply haven’t voted recently, and the practice has had a significant impact on some elections. In 2017, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp oversaw a purge of tens of thousands of voters before running for Governor the following year. He later beat Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams by about 55,000 votes. By mandating voter roll maintenance at the federal level, Manchin is just asking for this to become commonplace.

It’s also weird that restoration of voting rights for returning citizens isn’t included in a memo meant to churn bipartisan talks. While some states continue to restrict voting for the formerly incarcerated, many blue, purple, and red states have bucked this trend. Wouldn’t a serious bipartisan voting rights bill include something related to this?


To sum it up, the memo is a new starting place for negotiations in Congress. While I think this negotiation could bear fruit, it still glosses over a few things.

For starters, even if this memo does fly with Democrats, they still need 10 Republican senators to overcome the filibuster. Manchin and a select few in his party have been adamant in preserving this rule that allows a 40-person minority to stonewall virtually all legislation if they feel like it. Since the filibuster remains, there’s just no way forward without Republican support of this size. It’s hard to say whether this version of S. 1 will attract enough votes from either party to overcome the filibuster and pass. Manchin himself has said as much.

As if this isn’t absurd enough, Manchin’s argument that election legislation needs to be bipartisan makes little sense. One of his biggest problems with state Republicans’ latest restrictions on voting is that those measures are passed on party line votes, and he believes a bipartisan approach is the only real panacea to that problem. But this requirement for bipartisanship assumes that Republican lawmakers are operating in good faith when they clearly are not. Much of the party, including its leadership, continues to steer into the fabricated narrative of widespread voter fraud during the 2020 election, and they’re using this lie to further entrench their own minoritarian power. Saying he opposes S. 1—which again, he cosponsored previously!—because it doesn’t garner GOP support is like Princess Leia saying “The Rebel Alliance shouldn’t blow up the Death Star because the Empire doesn’t support blowing up the Death Star,” but after the Empire blew up Alderaan.

“Thanks for killing my friends, family, and planet. It’s really fine, no worries.”

The whole situation, in a word, sucks. We should not have to negotiate this way when it comes to access to the ballot box. One flip-flopping senator with a goofy idea of what makes the Senate so great (i.e. the filibuster) shouldn’t stand in the way of the U.S. getting closer to a truly representative democracy.

But these are the cards they’re dealt. If they’re forced to choose between compromising on these bills and no bills at all, then Democrats need to work with Manchin on this—even though they’re the ones actually trying to expand democracy in the first place. They’re the student in the group project that’s stuck doing all the work.

Provisions that Manchin took out, namely findings in support for D.C. statehood, can and should be pursued after this passes. If more is excluded during negotiations, like dark money regulations, then Congress should vote on stuff like the Transparency in Corporate Political Spending Act. If voter ID laws are included, Democrats should push for workarounds like easy-to-get municipal ID cards.

Despite the prevailing poppycock, this is still an opening for something big. Automatic voter registration, mandatory 15 days of early voting, and a ban on partisan gerrymandering individually are vast improvements on what we currently have. Manchin has complicated things, but Democrats can still expand democracy (if they stroke this guy’s ego). While it’s far from a sure thing that this will attract enough votes from the GOP, this is likely the only route to passing anything like S. 1 at all. That’s politics, I guess.

__

If possible, I would like to explore some of the individual provisions as they’re hashed out in Congress. If there are any specific ones you’d like me to discuss, let me know here.

As promised, the pup:

Related reading:
  • The Brennan Center for Justice has an annotated guide to S. 1.
  • There’s a lot of coverage of Manchin’s memo. Here’s Politico’s with no paywall.
  • The Intercept reported this week that Manchin also had a meeting with some of his corporate donors in which he floated reforming the filibuster among other things.
  • In May, Manchin said he wouldn’t support D.C. statehood unless it was approved as a constitutional amendment. Vox has more here.

Image of Senator Joe Manchin from National Review.

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