The For the People Act was written years before an American president attempted to steal an election, only to tell voters it was stolen from him. Democrats insist H.R. 1/S. 1 is a badly needed election reform bill to protect voting rights, despite knowing all along it couldn’t pass, and knowing now it doesn’t address once fantastic -- but newly realistic -- threats to democracy. They have squandered precious time as the crisis deepens, and now need to hope Sen. Joe Manchin can still rescue them.
One week after officially opposing S. 1 and infuriating progressives, Manchin released his own bill, and pragmatists like Stacey Abrams and Rep. Jim Clyburn immediately embraced it. Republicans, of course, announced their opposition and will kill both bills this week. When that happens Democrats will call on Manchin to eliminate the filibuster, and they will be wasting their time. The West Virginia moderate has firmly stated, repeatedly, that he will not end the filibuster. If Democrats truly want to fend off a constitutional crisis, then they will let Manchin write a bipartisan bill. That measure would have less to do with vote casting, which has been the central criticism from Democrats of all new voting laws in red states, and would focus more on vote counting, which is threatened by new laws that put partisans in control of the process.
Newly released polling will surprise Democrats and Republicans alike, showing strong majorities of Republican voters oppose partisans (of either party) increasing their influence over the outcome of elections. A national survey of likely Republican primary voters, conducted for Secure Democracy, showed 73% “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that partisans are seeking too much influence over the voting process. Of those polled, 91% trust their local election officials and said their personal experience voting in 2020 was “very good” or “somewhat good,” even if they distrust the system overall. And these Republicans don’t want to limit voting access either. “Despite the debates to restrict voting access happening across the country, polling shows that Republican voters are not supportive of restrictive approaches to voting and in fact want to ensure every eligible American voter has the ability to cast a ballot in a fair manner,” the summary stated.
Not only could Republicans face a political backlash from their own voters, as well as from independents, for limiting voter access, but cumbersome procedures could also cut into their own vote count.
While seeking to protect voting, Democrats must make vote nullification the primary focus of new legislation. It matters little how few drop boxes, days of early voting, drive-through polling places, weeks to request absentee ballots or 24-hour polling sites a jurisdiction has if the Republican Party is positioning itself to subvert the will of the voters, should they choose the other party.
Former President Trump continues to spread the Big Lie, and uses it as a litmus test for his support in the party he still controls. Big Lie Republicans -- who supposedly believe that Joe Biden collaborated with Republicans like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger and Mike Pence steal the presidency from Trump -- are campaigning to win offices that will give them power in the process next time. In Georgia, one of them is, of course, running against Raffensberger for secretary of state, but the GOP legislature left nothing to chance when it passed new voting laws, removing the secretary of state as chair of the Georgia elections board. Instead, the board’s chair is now chosen by the GOP state legislature and the board will be empowered to investigate and fire local election officials.
All these election truthers have to do next time to steal an election, should Biden legitimately win again, is find their own reasons not to certify counts in swing states. Without an Electoral College majority for either candidate, the process moves to a vote by the House of Representatives, in which each state delegation gets one vote. Even though in the majority numerically, Democrats would have lost that vote on Jan. 6 as Republicans have a majority in 26 states and that would have given the election to Trump. In 2025, the same thing can happen.
As Edward B. Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University, recently told the Los Angeles Times: “What was really scary about 2020 was how close we came to a meltdown. … It’s not too early to worry about January 6, 2025.”
Yet Democrats have spent most of their air time moaning about how water bottles will no longer be handed out in voter lines, which can’t quite compare to the end of electoral democracy. Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to build support behind the federal legislation while trying to blunt efforts by Republicans in statehouses nationwide who are passing new laws to restrict voting. She met with Texas Democrats last week, who temporarily blocked passage of a controversial new bill moving through the legislature there. But no amount of meetings Harris holds will matter if Democrats lack majorities in all the statehouses approving the bills and S. 1 can’t pass.
Manchin has not only been working with progressives, civil rights leaders and voting rights advocates like Abrams, the NAACP, and the National Urban League, but has reached out to Republican senators including Richard Burr, Ben Sasse, Dan Sullivan, Thom Tillis, Todd Young, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott and Lisa Murkowski, who had agreed to join him in reworking a separate bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Mitch McConnell nixed the Manchin plan outright, but it’s likely that a new one, focused on securing the count and negotiated with Republicans, is possible.
For the People was written in 2018 without consulting key stakeholders like election officials, which is -- for starters -- pretty dumb. Many of the mandates included in the legislation are either underfunded or temporarily funded, and significant changes to the system are either beyond states’ ability to implement or have deadlines so rushed they could make elections in the near future less secure as a result. A summary of the bill’s problems in The Daily Beast notes the legislation gives voters the ability to sue counties and states that don’t comply with the new rules, “leaving cash-strapped election officials fearing that they’ll be slapped with expensive lawsuits for their failure to leap over goalposts set unrealistically high.” The legislation also creates standards that current voting machines cannot meet.
Since Democratic lawmakers didn’t seem interested in addressing the bills’ problems all these years, it’s hard for them to argue now they really need to pass it. Election officials are afraid to speak out against the federal legislation, and even members and senators -- some of whom have acknowledged that it can’t pass -- have yet to criticize the bill as insufficient.
“The Democrats are just like Republicans: They’re afraid of their base,” one Democratic strategist told me. “They don’t want to speak out on this because they’re afraid of getting canceled.”
Democrats can keep peddling a messaging bill or protect democracy. A futile fight over a bad bill won’t solve any problems. Instead of moaning about Manchin and the filibuster, they should beg him to stay at the table to find a different bill 10 Republicans will support.