Civil rights leaders don't budge key senator on voting bill

·6 min read

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin was unswayed Tuesday by civil rights leaders who implored him to rethink his opposition to a sprawling election bill that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said is crucial to countering a “Republican assault on our democracy."

Manchin, from deeply Republican West Virginia, told reporters, “I don’t think anybody changed positions," in a meeting he described as “excellent." A participant said Manchin was “fairly well dug in.”

The bill, known as HR1, is a top priority for Democrats and is viewed by many in the party as the antidote to a wave of Republican-backed laws being passed on the state level that restrict people's ability to vote. It touches on almost every aspect of voting and was already passed by the House.

But Manchin threw a wrench into the works Sunday when he said he would oppose the bill. That effectively dooms the measure in a narrowly divided Senate where it is universally opposed by Republicans.

His decision sent voting rights groups and members of his own party scrambling for options, raising the prospect that no voting legislation would pass Congress to address what experts say is the greatest attack on voting rights in generation.

Manchin has said “inaction is not an option” when it comes to voting rights. But he has exasperated fellow Democrats and voting rights groups by insisting his support for any legislation would be contingent on some Republicans voting for it as well. He also opposes eliminating the 60-vote requirement to break a filibuster, a step that would allow Democrats to pass the legislation without Republican votes.

“We may get to a point where the dialogue reaches a dead end,” the Rev. Marc Morial, who attended Tuesday’s meeting with Manchin, told CNN. “And Joe Manchin was fairly well dug in.”

Pelosi had told House Democrats there is no substitute for the bill.

“It is my hope that the passage of (the bill) will create a legacy for all of us who want to strengthen our democracy,” the California Democrat wrote in a letter to colleagues before Manchin announced he wouldn't support the bill.

Now Democrats and voting rights groups are grasping for an alternative.

Some said they'd follow Manchin's suggestions and get behind a narrower piece of legislation known as HR4 that updates the Voting Rights Act to reinstate a requirement that new voting laws and legislative districts in certain states be subject to federal approval.

Others said they wanted to increase the pressure on Manchin. Still others insisted that Democrats needed to bring HR1 to the Senate floor this month, even it it's certain to fail, to draw attention to Republican opposition and Manchin's.

“It’s going to get messy,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the good-government organization Democracy 21, who helped draft HR1 in 2017. “What Manchin said is not the final word, as far as we’re concerned.

"I don’t believe he is prepared to go down in history as the senator that denied millions of eligible citizens, and in particular people of color, the opportunity to vote.”

The Rev. William Barber II, a key liberal activist who leads the Poor People's Campaign, represented the breadth of liberal anger at Manchin, tweeting Monday that his group would lead a march in West Virginia to “challenge Manchin.”

Manchin explained his opposition in West Virginia's Charleston Gazette-Mail on Sunday. “Voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen,” he wrote.

Only one Republican senator, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, has signed onto Manchin's preferred Voting Rights Act update, an indication of how politics on the issue have shifted since the Senate unanimously renewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006. And the newly aggressive constellation of conservative voting groups that mobilized against H.R. 1 say it will now campaign to keep the GOP united against HR4 as well.

“The end result of HR4 is the same — it's a federal takeover of the election system,” Jessica Anderson, executive director of the conservative policy organization Heritage Action for America, said in an interview. “As long as you have consensus on the right, standing together in lockstep, you're not going to have a bipartisan break.”

After former President Donald Trump's lies about how he lost the 2020 election because of widespread fraud, voting has become a polarized partisan issue much like abortion or taxes. That has almost guaranteed inaction in Congress, where the filibuster allows a unified minority party to block most major legislative initiatives.

“I think it's likely Congress doesn't do anything” on voting, said Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine law professor and election law specialist.

If there is one bill that could get any GOP support, it would be HR4, Hasen argued, noting the Republican Party did once support the Voting Rights Act. That was before a 2013 Supreme Court opinion written by the court's conservative majority struck down the way the act was used to require 13 states to “pre-clear” changes to voting laws with the Justice Department. The new bill, named after late Democratic Rep. John Lewis, would reinstate those preclearance requirements.

In contrast, Hasen said, HR1 was a “Democratic wish list” that included provisions neutering voter ID laws and implementing federal financing of elections that would never draw GOP support. “It was a kind of cheap signaling device for Democrats,” Hasen said.

But HR1's backers insist the bill remains the antidote to the recent wave of Republican legislation curtailing access to mail voting, cutting early voting hours and making it easier for partisan poll watchers to challenge voters' qualifications.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy group that advocates for voting access and backs HR1, noted that the Voting Rights Act update would address only future laws, not ones passed this year.

It would only allow the federal government to weigh in to protect the rights of racial minorities rather than address other discrimination, like a new law in Montana that removes student IDs as an allowable form of identification for voting. And it is silent on provisions like the drawing of legislative district lines for partisan advantage, something barred in HR1.

“Those provisions in HR1 still need to be adopted, somehow, or we're not going to be able to stem this really scary attack on our democratic institutions,” Weiser said.

Activists and lawmakers stressed that the voting rights update, HR4, is also crucial. It's been delayed by having to go through a complicated process to comply with the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling. In the end, they say the fate of an election overhaul will be clearer once Manchin tries to round up the 10 Republicans needed to break a filibuster.

At that point, they hope the West Virginia Democrat will have to confront the realities of the partisan politics of voting.

“They are not showing a readiness to stand up and do what’s right, so the notion you could get 10 of them to come along is farfetched,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., a primary sponsor of HR1. “You are not going to get real change without filibuster reform.”

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Riccardi reported from Denver.

Brian Slodysko And Nicholas Riccardi, The Associated Press