A Voting Rights Compromise

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 16, 2021

We appear to have a new compromise proposal in the Senate to bolster voter rights, at least among Democrats, and a new challenge that comes with it.

Here’s the news, from The Washington Post, which obtained a summary of the would-be compromise: Democrats meeting by themselves are circling the wagons around a new Freedom to Vote Act that retains significant portions of what Democrats in the House backed, only to be blocked in the Senate, but that drops several more contentious elements.

No one is covering up the obvious here, that the compromise has been guided and overseen by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-VW, to keep his vote.

Nor is anyone magically ensuring success, since Republicans dismiss the whole idea of national elections rule oversight, insisting that these are matters for states. Republican-led states, of course, are ignoring this entire debate and simply passing more restrictive voting laws.

As it stands, the bill would mandate (there’s that hot word again) national minimum standards for early voting and vote-by-mail, make Election Day a national holiday, and create new disclosure requirements for “dark money” groups that currently are not required. The new proposal drops most requirements for public financing of Congressional elections, gives states a freer hand to clean voting rolls, declines to insist that Federal Elections Commission have a majority through an odd-number membership, and it is silent about political gerrymandering.

This compromise does not even include one proposal that Manchin offered this summer for a national voter identification requirement. So, we’re allowing states to make it up as they go.

The proposal does include provisions meant to override state-level efforts in GOP-controlled states that could allow officials to override election results. Other sections would create federal protections for elections officials and create standards for the handing of election equipment and records.

Debating the Wrong People

What we have here, then, is Democrats debating Democrats, all to keep one vote by Manchin, who wants neither to dump the 60-vote filibuster rules for new legislation nor, really, to tell Republicans that they are simply wrong on these issues.

It is another example of politicians doing things to satisfy other politicians in search of majority votes, of winning, but not with the practical impact on real voters or on the health of the American democracy.

Significantly, though there is a group of Democrats putting their names behind this compromise effort, it is all to indulge Manchin. The seconding senators include Senators Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Tim Kaine, D-Va., Angus King, I-Me., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Alex Padilla, D-Calif., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Raphael G. Warnock, D-Ga.

They have the support of Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, if only to set up a showdown with Republicans.

As The New York Times notes, no Republican has emerged as even being curious about supporting new federal voting legislation of the breadth that Democrats are contemplating. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has insisted that no new national election legislation is necessary.

As with wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters, this man-made series of attacks on the basic American right to vote feels as if it is happening out of Washington’s control. As the issues linger, the shame here is that this Congress, this Senate, even down to the one or two key Democrats who are holding passage hostage, have the power to resolve it.

The irony is that senators are defending the Senate’s reliance on its peculiar form of filibuster and compromise in the name of democracy to delay as our national democracy effectively is under attack.

No Hurry

The compromise is leaking out in search of a majority, but no one seems in a hurry.

Undoubtedly, as the Post notes, voting rights advocates and many Democrats are hoping that sustained Republican opposition will create a put-up-or-shut-up moment for Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who have both vocally opposed changing the Senate rules to allow legislation to pass with a simple majority vote.

Since the spring, Manchin has played hard to get on voting rights. Manchin has resisted entreaties from civil rights leaders, from fellow Democrats, from Texas Democrats fled their state to delay restrictive voting rights in their state. No one quite gets whatever he is after, other than defending the procedures of the Senate themselves, and the hope for bipartisan agreement on all issues.

It may be a noble goal, but an impractical one on this voting rights issue in particular.

We wonder whether Manchin just doesn’t agree that voting restrictions will have longstanding and disproportionate ill effects on voters of color, on cities, on mail voting and the rest, or whether he simply doesn’t care.

Unlike spending bills, there is little room for negotiating whether you think we should support or squash voting rights for all Americans.

Manchin demanded the compromise, now he owns it, and has the responsibility to bring 10 Republican votes. Otherwise, he should back off and back filibuster change.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer