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Democrats and voting rights groups scrambled Monday to figure out their next move after a key senator's opposition seemed to doom a sweeping election overhaul bill and raise the prospect that no voting legislation would pass Congress amid what experts say is the greatest attack on voting rights in generations.
Sen. Joe Manchin's op-ed in a newspaper in his native West Virginia on Sunday regarding HR1 effectively neutralized his party's main weapon against a wave of Republican-backed laws tightening access to the ballot in numerous states. It left Democrats and voting rights groups grasping for an alternative.
Some said they'd follow Manchin's suggestions and prioritize a narrower piece of legislation known as HR4 that updates the Voting Rights Act to once again require federal approval of new voting laws and legislative districts in certain states. Others said they wanted to increase the pressure on Manchin, who is scheduled to meet with civil rights leaders Tuesday. Still others insisted that Democrats needed to bring HR1 to the Senate floor later this month, as the chamber's leadership planned to do before Manchin's op-ed.
“It’s going to get messy,” said Fred Wertheimer, the 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. Al Sharpton, National Urban League President Marc Morial and other civil rights leaders will be meeting with Manchin in Washington to discuss voting rights and other pieces of the legislative agenda. President Joe Biden, who met with many of the civil rights leaders last week in Tulsa, urged them to meet with Manchin and keep the tone convivial and constructive, and to not pressure the senator — at least not yet, according to a person familiar with the discussion who was not authorized to speak about private conversations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
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, a Democratic senator in a deeply red state, handed the GOP an effective veto on voting legislation, writing in the Charleston Gazette-Mail that he needed at least some Republicans on board to support any new election bill. He said he would not eliminate the 60-vote requirement to break a filibuster that would allow Democrats to pass the legislation without Republican votes.
“Voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen,” Manchin 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 they 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 that struck down the way the act was used to require 13 states to “pre-clear” changes to voting laws with the Department of Justice. 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 of hearings and fact-gathering 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 far-fetched,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., a primary sponsor of HR1. “You are not going to get real change without filibuster reform.”
Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.