While speaking to reporters on Jan. 18, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) rejected his party’s notion that tougher state-level election laws would obstruct voting rights, a bad sign for Democrats hoping to sway Manchin into weakening the filibuster.
After a string of policy failures for President Joe Biden before Congress’s winter recess, Democrats, looking for some victory in advance of a midterm season that’s expected to go in Republicans’s favor, made a frantic push to finally approve election legislation.
Because all 50 Senate Republicans have opposed Democratic election proposals, the majority party has little hope of approving any partisan elections measure through the normal processes of the Senate. To get the legislation through the Senate without Republican support, Democrats would have to weaken or abolish the filibuster.
After a week of what filibuster-proponent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) described as “harried discussions” on how to achieve this end, Sinema and Manchin announced their unilateral opposition to such a plan. Manchin and Sinema, two moderates who have often allied against the rest of their caucus, both defended the filibuster in statements.
“While I continue to support these [elections] bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division affecting our country,” Sinema told her colleagues on the Senate floor.
In his own statement on the debate, Manchin wrote, “Allowing one party to exert complete control in the Senate with only a simple majority will only pour fuel onto the fire of political whiplash and dysfunction that is tearing this nation apart. Especially when one party controls both Congress and the White House.
“As such, and as I have said many times before, I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.”
While Sinema made clear that she supported election reform if handled through the normal Senate processes, Manchin indicated in a Jan. 18 statement that he was far less certain about the need for such wide-reaching reform.
A reporter asked Manchin how he would respond to claims that some have made that he’s threatening people’s right to vote by opposing a filibuster carve-out. The West Virginia Democrat vigorously refuted the charge, saying that federal laws are already in place to protect the right to vote.
“The law is there, the rules are there, and basically the government, the government will stand behind [eligible voters] and make sure they have a right to vote,” Manchin said.
He also noted that recent litigation has shown that the law still works to correct genuine problems.
“The things they’re talking about now are in court. The courts have struck down [violations of voting rights]. … Like in Ohio, they struck down gerrymandering,” Manchin said, referencing a decision by Ohio’s Supreme Court to strike down a newly defined district that the court ruled as gerrymandering. “Things are happening, okay? We act like we’re gonna obstruct people from voting. That’s not gonna happen.”
Through 2021, many states across the United States approved laws to strengthen their elections, driven by concerns over widespread fraud in the 2020 election. Most commonly, these laws included provisions to require voter ID or to institute stricter absentee balloting requirements, as the latter was considered to have been especially vulnerable to fraud.
According to some Democrats, these new measures constitute a “new Jim Crow,” as they’ve alleged that the laws are intended to disproportionately affect minority voters.
The Supreme Court heard this claim in March 2021, when the Democratic National Committee (DNC) alleged that Arizona’s newly-approved election laws targeted minorities and were thus illegal under the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich successfully convinced the Supreme Court otherwise, but Democrats have persisted in the claim.
For many Democrats, tougher state election laws have brought voting rights to the point of crisis, and they contend that this crisis demands federal action. Democrats have put forward many election laws that they say would meet the alleged crisis, but these have all faced death by filibuster from Senate Republicans, who make up one-half of Congress’s upper chamber.
Republicans have said that many of the measures, particularly voter ID requirements, have been shown to have bipartisan support in public opinion polls and that the state measures are entirely legal under the Constitution and the VRA. Republicans have also accused Democrats of trying to use the law to unfairly benefit their party and have criticized the efforts as “federalizing” elections.
Due to these concerns, Republicans have, with only one exception, voted unanimously to filibuster each elections measure that Democrats have brought to the floor. Even swing-vote Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has suggested that he’s open to minor election law tweaks, has criticized the legislation put forward by Democrats for their all-or-nothing, radical measures.
Since their failure to sway their Senate caucus to vote for Biden’s now-defunct $1.85 trillion social spending legislation, Democrats in the Senate have turned their attention to election law once again.
But now that Manchin has rejected the claim that there’s a major problem, it’s even more unlikely that Democrats will be able to sway the West Virginia maverick, leaving little hope that the party will be able to approve any monolithic elections measure.
Still, despite these quickly-slipping hopes, Democrats have decided to move ahead with a floor vote on two elections measures anyway, which they’re expected to vote on around 6:30 p.m. EST on Jan. 19. Short of a major change of policy by Manchin and Sinema or a string of Republican defections, these bills, and the corollary effort to change Senate rules, can’t pass.