Spoiler alert: Murkowski is not really working on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, there will be no Republicans supporting it, and her version of it will likely never see the light of day.
The Freedom to Vote Act is a result of months of work by Senate Democrats, with Manchin, to craft a voting rights bill for him. He stands as the lone Democratic opponent to the For the People Act, the sweeping elections, campaign finance reform, and voting rights bill that passed in the House in early March. 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) worked with Manchin to craft the new Freedom to Vote Act on the premise that he would work to find the 10 Republican votes to pass it.
He has not. The exercise did result in very good legislation—it’s a bill that President Joe Biden lobbied Senate Democrats for early this week, calling it a “must pass priority.” That’s preaching to the choir because once Manchin was invested, there was no question that every Democrat would support it. The question is how far they’ll go to pass it.
“When we are talking about the fundamental operation of democracy, I have to think a Senate rule will have to be modified or give way,” King told The New York Times. He said he was ready to change the filibuster to pass the bill. But that wasn’t what Biden was talking about, apparently, when he was rallying Democrats. A White House statement about the bill didn’t say anything about filibuster reform or whether it came up in Biden’s discussions with senators. Instead, it said he would endeavor to secure voting rights “through legislation, executive actions, outreach, the bully pulpit and all other means available.”
That’s not to say the White House isn’t aware of the reality of the situation. “If Republicans cannot come forward and stop standing in the way, if they can’t support strengthening, protecting the fundamental right to vote, then Democrats are going to have to determine an alternative path forward,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. There really isn’t an alternative path to ending the filibuster, even if just for voting rights and elections bills.
It’s not like the Senate hasn’t done that before. For example, they did it 161 times between 1961 and 2014, covering “a wide range of policy areas, including trade (such as the multiple provisions providing the president with fast-track trade authority); foreign policy (including rules for the imposition or waiver of international sanctions); defense matters (such as procedures for closing military bases); the federal budget (including the process for developing and passing the congressional budget resolution); and health care (such as the provisions governing the adoption of proposed cuts in Medicare spending).”
It seems like “saving democracy in the United States” would rank up there with closing military bases as a priority for allowing the Senate to act.
This is a good bill, a very good bill, worthy of adding voting rights and election reform to the filibuster carve-outs, if not ending the legislative filibuster outright (which they may as well do since there is going to be another existential fight over the debt limit in a few months). The analysts at the Brennan Center for Justice have been keeping close track of the state of our republic this year, and it’s not good. “Nineteen states have passed 33 laws making it harder to vote … Republican-controlled legislators try to rig election rules to assure their control at the state and federal level,” they report. “And in both Democrat- and Republican-controlled states across the country, partisans are drawing maps that lock in their party’s control in a way that too often discriminates along racial, ethnic, and partisan lines.”
“The Freedom to Vote Act,” Brennan’s President Michael Waldman writes, “would stop this voter suppression and gerrymandering, cold.”
The bill establishes national voting access standards for federal elections, including mandating early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and protections for voters with disabilities. It also makes Election Day a holiday. It enacts special protection for election officials to safeguard them from intimidation and harassment and to prevent them from being removed from office by partisan politics. It creates national, uniform rules for counting votes.
The Freedom to Vote Act bans partisan gerrymanders in redistricting, setting uniform, national rules for drawing congressional maps. In addition, it “increases protections for communities of color in the redistricting process and allows for discriminatory or gerrymandered maps to be challenged in court quickly and fixed.” If it was passed this year, the worst of the gerrymanders Republicans are drawing up right now would be stopped.
Manchin—and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema—could emerge as heroes Wednesday. They could erase a whole lot of ill will they’ve created for themselves in the fight over Biden’s economic and family agenda in the reconciliation and infrastructure bills they’ve been monkey-wrenching for months. They could also secure their continued relevancy as lawmakers, giving Democrats a fairer shot at retaining and growing their majority next year. And Manchin could erase the stigma, to a degree anyway, of having been made to the look the fool time and time again by Republicans.