In an op-ed on Sunday, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia made it clear he will vote against S. 1, the For the People Act. His reasoning was two-fold: he believes the bill, which passed the House in March, is “partisan.” And he believes that the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) is the better bill to protect voting rights in the United States.
He’s wrong in the first instance and only partially correct in the second. Let me take the second part first.
Manchin is correct that the VRAA is vitally important legislation. It would restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, whose most powerful provisions the Supreme Court gutted in its infamous Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013. If passed, the VRAA would once again make certain jurisdictions — primarily in the South but also in states like New York — get permission from the Justice Department or federal courts before changing their voting rules. Between 1998 and 2013, the law blocked 87 jurisdictions from changing their voting rules in a discriminatory manner through this process, known as “preclearance.” In other words, it did its job well.
The problem, however, is that the VRAA only blocks jurisdictions from changing voting rules before they go into effect. But, as our new report revealed, 14 states have already enacted 22 laws this year that restrict people’s access to the ballot box. It’s almost certain that recent discriminatory laws passed in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia would have never made it past preclearance.
And we can expect more of this. Sixty-one bills with restrictive provisions are currently moving through 18 state legislatures. One Arizona bill could turn common signature mismatches on mail ballots into potential criminal cases. It’s a less-than-subtle form of voter intimidation.
Many, if not all, of these laws will be challenged in court. But there’s the rub. Lawsuits cost a lot of time and money. They can also take years to wind through the courts, meaning voters will be harmed without any certainty of their rights being restored. One strict voter ID law in Texas was on the books for hundreds of elections before litigation forced state legislators to change it.
So while it’s essential to protecting voting rights in the future, the VRAA doesn’t meet the moment we’re facing as Republican-controlled state legislatures try to disfigure our democracy through widespread voter suppression measures. Only the For the People Act can do that, because not only would it create a national baseline for voting rights and access, it would roll back or block many of these discriminatory laws.
For instance, as our resource shows, many states are trying to limit who can vote by mail. The For the People Act requires national no-excuse voting by mail. Some state legislators want to eliminate or limit early voting. The For the People Act requires a minimum of 14 consecutive days of early voting.
It’s also important to stress that voting reforms like mail voting and early voting were popular and bipartisan before Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen election became a litmus test for who is and isn’t a Republican. Manchin is right to be concerned about partisanship in a deeply divided nation. But the torrent of state voter suppression legislation — all condoned by the national GOP — should be the focus of his ire.
Recent events on the Hill also up the stakes. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that the VRAA would not even be ready to move legislatively until the fall. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear Tuesday he will oppose that bill — thus dispelling the fantasy that it would glide to bipartisan passage.
We agree with Manchin when he writes that “American democracy is something special.” But if he wants to preserve it in the near term and far into the future, then the only thing to do is vote for the For the People Act now and the VRAA when it’s ready. You can’t have one without the other if you’re serious about protecting our democracy from those who seek to destroy it.
The freedom to vote for millions of Americans rests on Sen. Manchin’s shoulders. There is no alternative to S.1 to save our democracy.