The Voting Rights Package That Can Pass the Senate

A plan that can get past Joe Manchin, the Republicans, and still help voters.

Filibuster opponents and bipartisanship skeptics on the left view the Republican rejection of Sen. Joe Manchin’s voting rights proposal as validation. After all, if Republicans won’t meet the most conservative Democrat halfway, what hope is there for legislation that would protect our democracy?

There is still hope, but it likely requires narrower provisions and a revamped negotiation strategy from Manchin.

The 72-year-old West Virginian made a big mistake when he drafted his compromise bill by himself, then sprung it on the rest of Congress, without any Republicans buying in ahead of time. So when Stacey Abrams announced she supported Manchin’s proposal, Republicans unfairly—perhaps blinkered by racism—presumed it was a raw deal. Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt was, well, blunt: “When Stacey Abrams immediately endorsed Senator Manchin’s proposal, it became the Stacey Abrams substitute, not the Joe Manchin substitute.”

Manchin has had more success when he first assembles a bipartisan “Gang” whose members draft a compromise together. It’s harder to blow off a group than one member, even the pivotal Manchin. Upon announcing an initial deal, public pressure is placed on both parties to accept it, because the alternative is… nothing. This is how bipartisan pandemic relief was passed in December in the waning days of the Trump Administration. And while we don’t know yet if a bipartisan infrastructure bill is going to make it to the president’s desk, working collaboratively from the center out on infrastructure has been far more productive than Manchin working solo on voting rights.

Of course, just getting some Republican and Democratic members in one room won’t accomplish anything if the two parties share no common ground. When it comes to voting rights, most assume there is no overlap to be had. Democrats believe Republicans want stricter voting access to suppress Democratic voters, and Republicans believe Democrats want looser voting access to turn out Democratic voters.

But I’ve previously reported for the Washington Monthly that these assumptions are deeply flawed. If both parties had a clearer understanding of the available data and research, they would realize that an expanded voting rights bill can be made electorally neutral. Still, any bill as broad in scope as the Democrats’ For the People Act is bound to face resistance from congressional Republicans who get twitchy at the thought of increased federal involvement in elections. A compact bill, prioritizing a few measures with distinct appeal to both parties, would be more likely to produce a bipartisan breakthrough. I would suggest a three-pronged bill.

The first prong would be a national voter ID mandate. Manchin included in his proposal a provision to “Require voter ID with allowable alternatives (utility bill, etc.) to prove identity to vote,” and that provoked a softening among Democrats regarding voter ID. Abrams said to CNN, “No one has ever objected to having to prove who you are to vote,” and Abrams’ fellow Georgian Sen. Rafael Warnock said to The Washington Post, “I don’t know anybody who believes that people shouldn’t have to prove that they are who they say they are.”

Democrats were quick to embrace Manchin’s voter ID provision for two reasons. One, as The Washington Post noted, “There is an emerging school of thought that even stricter voter ID rules may not be as suppressive as many Democrats once warned.” (I reported on such research here back in February.) And second, Manchin offered a flexible version of voter ID, permitting non-photo ID such as a utility bill.

Republicans may still push for a stricter mandate; the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund complained that Manchin didn’t insist on photo IDs. But most state voter ID laws—which have largely been enacted by Republicans—are not strict. They either allow non-photo ID, signed affidavits, or voting by provisional ballot without any ID at all. Only seven states have a voter ID law that doesn’t permit voters to use any of those avenues. A compromise national bill may have to be stricter than what Manchin proposed, but with Democrats now accepting the underlying premise of a voter ID law, finding a middle ground looks feasible

The second-prong should enfranchise non-incarcerated felons and ex-felons. As I previously wrote, this is an extremely ripe area for bipartisanship. There is great Democratic interest in restoring voting rights to felons because African-Americans are disproportionately disenfranchised. Nevertheless, most felons are white non-college males—a cohort that is heavily inclined to vote Republican. And as Ryan Teague Beckwith noted on Twitter, “A landmark 2019 survey of current inmates found that a plurality of White respondents would have backed Trump, roughly the same percentage as his approval rating among White voters at the time.”

So, Manchin, in the privacy of the negotiation room, can make a pitch to Republicans: We Democrats need to deliver a tangible benefit to our African-American base voters and restore the voting rights on those with felony records. But if you help us, Republicans will likely net more new voters in the process, and you can deflect charges of racism and extend the inroads you made in 2020 with Black voters. A political win-win.

For the final prong, we need a bipartisan blow against the threat of election subversion. And I have a simple one. Under current law, “attempts to deprive or defraud the residents of a State of a fair and impartially conducted election process, by … procurement, casting, or tabulation of ballots that are known by the person to be materially false,” runs the risk of five years in prison. Let’s make it 20.

Toughening up the law against election manipulation doesn’t directly prevent election subversion. Republican election officers may be able to use existing state law or take advantage of any forthcoming new laws that would theoretically make it easier for them to manipulate voting rolls and results. But any attempt to illegitimately meddle with the right to vote and to accurately count the vote, and any documented discussion to that end, is playing with legal fire. A dramatic, and heavily advertised increase in the penalty for election thievery, could well give a sharp gut check to any Secretary of State, county election official or City Clerk thinking about crossing that line.

And both parties have an incentive in providing that gut check. While Democrats have been disturbed by the recent Republican push to control statewide election machinery, Republicans have long held ridiculous conspiracy theories about conniving Democratic election officials stuffing ballots in slow-counted inner-city elections. Members of each party can sell a crackdown on election theft to their respective bases as in their interest.

If Manchin manages to convene another Gang of 10 going to discuss election reform, he and others may well have different ideas than these. I am not trying to sideline potentially powerful ideas such as universal paper ballots to bolster election credibility and accuracy. Nor would I suggest my list of proposals comes with any sort of guarantee for Republican cooperation. But starting with a few potent voter rights ideas, which have a shot at winning over Republicans, could completely explode the conventional wisdom about what’s possible in a polarized political environment.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"