The Washington Post

Voting rights

The Democrats’ revised bill drops controvers­ial provisions and tweaks others as pressure for action mounts.

- BY MIKE DEBONIS mike.debonis@washpost.com

A group of Democratic senators — including key centrist Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — introduced a pared-down voting rights, campaign finance and government ethics bill Tuesday in hopes of building momentum for its passage through a closely divided Senate.

The new Freedom to Vote Act retains significan­t portions of the For the People Act, Democrats’ marquee voting legislatio­n that passed the House this year but was blocked in the Senate by a Republican filibuster in June. Those include mandating national minimum standards for early voting and vote-by-mail, establishi­ng Election Day as a national holiday, and creating new disclosure requiremen­ts for “dark money” groups that are not now required to disclose their donors.

But it also discards significan­t pieces and tweaks others, largely in an effort to placate Manchin and indulge his hopes of building enough Republican support to pass the bill. Overcoming a filibuster absent a rules change would require the support of 10 Republican­s in addition to the 50 members of the Democratic caucus.

Those odds appeared remote Tuesday: Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mcconnell (R-KY.) vowed anew to keep his party united in opposition to any federal voting legislatio­n, and even some of the most moderate Republican senators whom Manchin has briefed on the new bill said they believed it went too far.

“I represent a state with one of the highest turnouts in the country consistent­ly, and yet we don’t have early voting,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-maine). “So I don’t see why the federal government should impose rules on a state and preempt state laws for a state that’s doing a great job.”

The changes to the bill, however, will allow Democrats to keep hope for action on voting rights alive for at least a few more weeks at a precarious moment for Senate Democrats, with the party eager to make progress on President Biden’s sweeping economic agenda while facing deadlines to fund the federal government and address the approachin­g debt ceiling in the coming weeks.

Some of the changes gut significan­t portions of the For the People Act: A public financing system for congressio­nal campaigns that would match small donations with federal funds on a 6-to-1 basis has been scaled back to an optional program for House campaigns only, requiring states to choose whether to participat­e. State and local election officials would have a freer hand to purge voter rolls than under the initial bill, and a provision to change the makeup of the Federal Election Commission, moving from an even split between the parties to an odd number of members in a bid to break partisan gridlock, has been omitted from the revised bill.

While the original bill mandated that states use nonpartisa­n commission­s to draw congressio­nal district lines to prevent gerrymande­ring, the revised bill does not require commission­s. It instead creates federal criteria for mapmaking, gives courts the power to enforce them and allows states to choose how to comply, whether by using a commission or another method.

The new legislatio­n also adds some new elements, including provisions meant to thwart statelevel efforts in Gop-controlled states that some are warning could allow officials to override election results. Sections aimed at so-called election subversion would create federal protection­s for elections officials and create standards for the handing of election equipment and records that could forestall partisan audits such as the review of the 2020 presidenti­al election results ordered by the Arizona Senate.

The Freedom to Vote Act does not include one controvers­ial proposal that Manchin floated in June — a national voter identifica­tion mandate. Instead, the bill would create a national standard for the states that choose to require voter ID, allowing them to accept a range of documents as proof of identifica­tion, without requiring it in other states.

The revised bill emerges as Democrats face mounting pressure from advocates and from their own voters to address the series of state election laws passed in Gop-controlled states this year — a national effort to cut back on early voting, vote by mail, drop boxes and other ballot access measures in response to former president Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen 2020 election.

Meanwhile, states are already beginning the redistrict­ing process without new federal standards in place to prevent partisan gerrymande­ring. Nonpartisa­n forecaster­s predict that would allow Republican­s to net several House seats in the 2022 midterms, further imperiling the Democratic House majority.

The bill was hashed out over the summer by a group of senators that included Manchin and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-minn.), chair of the Senate Rules and Administra­tion Committee. Also involved were Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA.), Angus King (I-maine), Jeff Merkley (D- Ore.), Alex Padilla (D- Calif.), Jon Tester (D-mont.) and Raphael G. Warnock (D- Ga.).

Klobuchar said in a statement that the Republican state laws “demand an immediate federal response,” and she thanked her fellow Democrats for arriving at a consensus product after weeks of negotiatio­ns. “Now let’s get it done,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) hosted several of the meetings and told reporters Tuesday that he expects a procedural vote on the bill “very soon,” perhaps next week.

“Bottom line, this legislatio­n is critical for stopping some of the most egregious assaults against voting rights from Republican­s, exclusivel­y Republican­s, at the state level,” he said. “We need to move quickly here — time is of the essence. Every member knows that.”

But Schumer refrained from discussing further steps, including a possible showdown over whether to get rid of the filibuster — noting that Manchin now had the opportunit­y to seek GOP support for the legislatio­n.

“If that doesn’t happen, we’ll move — we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said, adding that “all options are on the table.”

Still, no Republican has emerged as even being curious about supporting new federal voting legislatio­n of the breadth that Democrats are contemplat­ing. Collins said she could support narrow parts of the bill dealing with the disclosure of political donors and preventing foreign election interferen­ce but not a broader set of federal election mandates.

Top party leaders, including Mcconnell, have insisted that no new national election legislatio­n is necessary, and there is no expectatio­n in the Democratic ranks that next week’s vote will succeed in advancing the bill.

“There is no rational basis for the federal government taking over how we conduct elections in this country,” Mcconnell told reporters Tuesday. “It is a solution in search of a problem, and we will not be supporting that.”

What is less clear is what will happen next: Voting rights advocates and many Democrats are hoping the sustained GOP opposition will create a put-up-or-shutup 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.

There are no obvious reasons to think that either senator is on the cusp of changing their minds, and with Biden’s economic agenda hanging in the balance, there is little incentive for top party leaders to engage in hardball tactics — at least not yet.

Manchin on Tuesday said he was not dissuaded by the continued Republican opposition — including from Collins, a frequent negotiatin­g partner. “We got to keep talking,” he said. “That’s why we’re called a deliberati­ve body.”

Merkley said in an MSNBC interview Monday night that the drama could play out for many more weeks as Democrats debate among themselves about next steps.

“The dialogue will begin,” he said. “How do we honor our responsibi­lity to defend the fundamenta­l rights of all Americans? . . . And that’s going to take some time to work that out. But I really believe that we have to, before the month of October is out — we have to get this voting rights legislatio­n done.”

“We got to keep talking. That’s why we’re called a deliberati­ve body.” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.VA.)

 ?? JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.VA.), second from right at a Sept. 11 remembranc­e ceremony Monday on Capitol Hill, joined with a group of fellow members of the Democratic caucus on Tuesday to introduce a revised voting rights, campaign finance and government ethics bill in hopes of building enough Republican support to pass the legislatio­n.
JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.VA.), second from right at a Sept. 11 remembranc­e ceremony Monday on Capitol Hill, joined with a group of fellow members of the Democratic caucus on Tuesday to introduce a revised voting rights, campaign finance and government ethics bill in hopes of building enough Republican support to pass the legislatio­n.

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