Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced in a letter to Senate Democrats Thursday that he will bring the Freedom To Vote Act to the floor when the Senate returns next week. This is the bill that conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has been shopping around to Republicans. Manchin has steadfastly withheld his support from the House-passed larger voting rights and election reform For the People Act, the lone Democrat to do so. He has also refused even to consider breaking the filibuster to restore voting rights.
“Senator Manchin has been engaged in conversations with our Republicans colleagues in hopes of advancing solutions on a bipartisan basis to ensure all Americans have their voice heard in our democracy,” Schumer wrote in his letter. This could be read as Schumer giving Republicans one more chance to prove to Manchin that no, there are not “10 good people” on the Republican side, as he has insisted. That was Manchin’s view back when 10 Republicans failed to materialize to approve a commission to investigate the 1/6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Even after that vote, Manchin has remained convinced that by the force of his personality and magical belief in bipartisanship, there will be enough Republicans who think every eligible voter needs easy access to the polls. Maybe the brick wall of opposition will do the trick of bringing Manchin around on the filibuster. Even though Mitch McConnell broke last week on the debt ceiling, supposedly out of fear that Democrats would nuke the filibuster to pass it, he’s not going to let 10 GOP senators loose on this one.
Manchin has put effort into this bill and on getting Republicans to agree to it. He’s also worked with Sens. Amy Klobucher (Minnesota), Jeff Merkley (Oregon), Raphael Warnock (Georgia), Alex Padilla (California), Jon Tester (Montana), Tim Kaine (Virginia), and Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine). Together, they introduced the bill last month.
“The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy, and the Freedom to Vote Act is a step in the right direction towards protecting that right for every American,” Manchin said in a statement released with the bill’s introduction “As elected officials, we also have an obligation to restore people’s faith in our democracy, and I believe that the commonsense provisions in this bill―like flexible voter ID requirements―will do just that.”
The bill has three sections, addressing voter access and election administration, election integrity, and “civic participation and empowerment.” In the first section, it makes Election Day a public holiday; enacts automatic voter registration and online registration in each state; requires at least two weeks of early voting in federal elections; requires same-day voter registration; allows no-excuse absentee or mail-in voting to everyone and requires “minimum standards to ensure drop boxes are available and accessible to all voters. It restores the right to vote in federal elections to former felons who’ve served their time, and “includes targeted protections to promote accessible voting to communities facing unique challenges.” That includes disabled people, Native American communities, the military and other overseas voters, and underserved communities.
It does include voter ID but does require “a uniform national standard for states that require identification for in-person voting, and allowing voters to present a broad set of identification cards and documents in hard copy and digital form.” It does not, however, require a national voter ID. States that don’t require it wouldn’t be forced to under this legislation.
The election integrity bucket requires paper ballots, providing grants to states to help them purchase new, secure voting systems and increase cybersecurity. It would create “federal protections to insulate nonpartisan state and local officials who administer federal elections from undue partisan interference or control.” There goes most of the Republican conference right there. It would provide for training programs in the states to recruit and train election workers; set cybersecurity standards for election equipment vendors; and create a reporting requirement for federal campaigns to report foreign election interference.
The final “civic participation” bucket includes provisions to “prevent partisan manipulation of the redistricting process, establishes uniform disclosure standards for money in politics, and empowers states to make critical investments in their election systems.” That includes nonpartisan redistricting reforms and a ban on partisan gerrymandering, more donor disclosure for Super PACs and dark money “charitable” groups, and stops those groups from being able to shuffle donations among one another to hide contributor identities.
This is actually essential stuff for saving our representative democracy. The Brennan Center says this “package of reforms that would be the most consequential voting rights and anti-corruption bill passed in more than half a century,” and says that it “addresses the biggest problems facing our democracy, from efforts to restrict access to the ballot, to campaign finance laws, to voter roll purges, to extreme partisan gerrymandering.” All of which means Manchin is going to be lucky to get even one Republican to support it.
“We cannot allow conservative-controlled states to double down on their regressive and subversive voting bills,” Schumer said in his letter, calling for a vote as early as Wednesday. “I hope that our Republican colleagues will join us in good faith,” he wrote. “But Republicans must come to the table to have that conversation and at the very least vote to open debate.”
Or what? That’s where we’re all left dangling, including Manchin, who has staked an awful lot on this bill. So far, no Republican has expressed any interest in voting for it. Schumer has said, lots and lots of times, that “everything is on the table” in restoring voting rights. We might just see whether he means it next week.