Last month, Sen. Joe Manchin said of the Democrats’ sweeping voting rights bill, “Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits, but will inevitably only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government.”
Many Democrats had hoped the spectacle of a Republican minority blocking a voter rights bill from becoming law would convince Manchin and other moderates that the filibuster is antithetical to democracy and abolish it. They see the Jan. 6 attempt by pro-Trump insurrectionists to prevent certification of the Electoral College count, the Georgia election reform law enacted on a Republican party-line vote, and past GOP attempts to restrict voting access, and conclude that the entire Republican Party cannot be a good-faith negotiating partner on anything, especially voting rights.
For Manchin to move in the opposition direction, and insist on a bipartisan voting rights bill, drives a lot of Democrats over the edge.
Yet the West Virginia senator is correct to say a partisan bill that changes how elections are run will exacerbate distrust. Case in point: the new Georgia law.
Some election experts argue that Democratic fears of vote suppression from the law won’t materialize. But such a conclusion is hard to accept when the bill was passed without any Democratic votes. As one Democratic state legislator in Georgia said, “If this bill was truly about restoring confidence for voters, we would have worked together to get this bill right.” Besides, Republicans didn’t try all that hard to pretend their intent was pure. One state party official said in January that “major parts” of the state’s election laws had to be changed “so that we at least have a shot at winning.”
However, mistrust runs both ways. Democrats in the U.S. Congress wrote their voting rights bill by themselves. And when elected officials such as Rep. Jim Clyburn say Democrats who “enjoy being in the majority” should circumvent the filibuster and pass the bill on a party-line vote, Republicans conclude the moral arguments for expanded voting access mask a more partisan motive.
Manchin’s desire for bipartisanship has proven limits; he stuck with his party to pass the pandemic relief bill on a party-line vote through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process. Some Democrats believe Manchin is engaging in an extended kabuki dance, posing as a rogue centrist to impress his home-state right-leaning voters before eventually voting like a loyal Democrat.
Perhaps we will see that two-step in regards to President Biden’s infrastructure package, parts of which will be able to pass through reconciliation. But very little in the Democrats’ voting rights bill is budgetary, making it ineligible for the reconciliation process. So a voting rights bill will need 10 Republican votes, at least, to break any filibuster. Since Manchin has been repeatedly unequivocal in his refusal to abolish the filibuster, the only reasonable conclusion is that when he says a voting rights bill must be bipartisan, he means it.
Is a bipartisan voting bill even possible when the mistrust runs deep and the policy goals of both parties are diametrically opposed?
Yes. Because many of the assumptions both parties hold regarding the partisan effects of election reforms are deeply flawed. Once everyone realizes that neither party stands to gain much, if anything, from an election reform bill, the political temperature can be lowered and productive negotiating can commence.
Democrats are under the impression that increased turnout means more Democrats will be elected. Republicans generally believe lower turnout benefits Republicans.
But as I’ve written previously, the pool of non-voters and rare voters is not weighted toward Democrats. A Knight Foundation study found that if those highly unlikely voters all started voting, they would add a “nearly equal share to Democratic and Republican candidates.”
As we’ve seen in recent elections, specific candidates and political circumstances can boost turnout in all sorts of partisan directions. In 2016, Trump boosted turnout from right-leaning white working-class voters, allowing him to snag an Electoral College victory. 2018 featured the highest midterm election turnout since at least 1978, with a particularly strong increase among the young; that favored Democrats, helping them take control of the House. Then the 2020 election produced the biggest turnout increase since universal suffrage for women, thanks to widespread use of mail and early in-person voting. But the partisan impact was mixed; Democrats took the White House and (just barely) the Senate, yet compared to 2018, Republicans gained in the national House popular vote and netted 14 seats.
Easy voting access can even help third-party candidates. Take same-day registration, which Democrats would mandate nationwide in their voting rights bill. But in all of our election history, who was the candidate most helped by same-day voting registration? The answer is Jesse Ventura of the Reform Party, who was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998. Of Ventura’s 773,403 votes, an estimated 225,184 were from same-day registrants, far more than his margin of victory: 56,523 votes.
The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that “studies reveal no conclusive evidence of whether [same-day registration] shapes partisan outcomes or whether certain populations are more likely to benefit.” Already, several states have some form of same-day registration, including Iowa, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, which have not become less Republican as a result. But in such a system, a charismatic candidate like Ventura has the potential to catch fire and attract unlikely voters who make an impulse decision to vote on Election Day. And no one party has a lock on charismatic candidates.
What about the decades-long Republican push for voter ID requirements, which create an extra barrier to voting? Thirty-six states now have some form of voter ID law on the books -- a number that increased in part because the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder freed jurisdictions with past histories of racial discrimination from needing federal government approval for voting law changes.
Republicans have been repeatedly caught saying they believe such laws will help them win elections. In 2012, a Pennsylvania Republican state legislator said the state’s voter ID law would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” The following year, a North Carolina Republican party official said its voter ID law would “kick the Democrats in the butt.” In 2015, a former Wisconsin Republican legislative aide revealed that during internal party discussion about voter ID laws, “a handful of the GOP senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters.”
But if the point of voter ID laws is to suppress Democratic voters, research has shown these laws to be ineffectual. A 2019 study found “strict ID laws have no significant negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any subgroup defined by age, gender, race, or party affiliation.” According to an academic paper published in February exploring the impact of Shelby County, such laws appear to have a boomerang effect: “the Shelby decision does not appear to have widened the turnout gap between Black and White voters in previously covered states … and may have even increased the relative turnout of Black voters in covered states during the 2016 election. These results are consistent with an accumulating body of evidence that suggests that voters mobilize in response to increases in the cost of voting when those increases are perceived as threats to the franchise.”
Does that mean voter ID laws are innocuous, or that they make voters jump through needless hoops to exercise their basic constitutional right? Fair debate can be had on those questions, and it will much easier for such a debate to remain civil once everyone understands these laws aren’t successfully tipping elections through suppression.
But to get members of both parties to have a civil discussion and good-faith negotiation about voting rights will likely require someone of stature — someone of more stature that a lowly political pundit — using the media megaphone to inject facts into our discourse and explode the false narratives that are warping the debate. The person in the best position to do that is the person insisting that any voting rights bill be bipartisan: Sen. Joe Manchin.
Manchin has been talking a good game about bipartisanship, but now it’s time for him to deliver.