Senate Democrats unveiled a newly tweaked but still-robust voting rights bill Monday that could get a vote "as early as next week," according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
The first thing to know about the Freedom to Vote Act is that it has the support of Democratic senators ranging from Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to Raphael Warnock of Georgia. The next thing to know is that even if it achieves full support of all 50 Democrats in the Senate—which it might—it will just as surely fall short of getting the 10 more Republicans necessary to overcome the GOP filibuster that is guaranteed to come. And in some ways, demonstrating that failure on a bill largely written to earn Manchin's support may be exactly the point.
From the Senate floor Monday, Schumer explained that a working group of Democratic senators had collaborated over the recess to craft a new bill that protects voters’ right to cast a ballot, combats partisan gerrymandering, and ends dark money influence in elections. Now, the attention will turn to Republicans, who blocked Democrats’ previous voting rights bill—the For the People Act—from even proceeding to debate.
"Sen. Manchin has been having discussions with our Republican colleagues to try to garner support for this important legislation," Schumer said. "That said, we must be honest about the facts—the Republican-led war on democracy has only worsened in the last few weeks," Schumer added, noting the "draconian" voter suppression bill recently signed into law in Texas and the upcoming gerrymanders that will bias voting districts across the country, mainly in favor of Republicans.
"Time of the essence," Schumer said, promising a swift vote that seems, more than anything, designed to prove to Manchin that Republicans have no interest in safeguarding a citizen’s right to vote, much less American democracy.
So here’s what's in the bill:
- Establishes automatic voter registration in every state
- Establishes national minimum 15-day standard for early voting
- Establishes national minimum standard for vote-by-mail, ensuring all voters can request an absentee ballot and setting a minimum number of drop boxes
- Sets national standards for states that require voter IDs, allowing what is described as a "wide array" of documentation to serve as proof of identification
- Election Day established as a holiday
- Establishes new disclosure requirements for dark money
- Provides federal protections for nonpartisan election workers
- Stipulates paper ballots must be used
- Lets states choose their method for redistricting (nonpartisan commissions being one option) but lays out federal mapmaking criteria to combat gerrymanders that are enforceable in the courts
- Establishes federal protections for election officials and federal standards for handling election equipment and records aimed at combatting GOP efforts to seize control of post-election recounts and outcomes
Schumer said the compromise legislation was something "all Democrats" could support, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who helped craft the compromise, was eager to demonstrate that broad support.
"We reached agreement on the Freedom to Vote Act w/ Sens Schumer,Kaine,King,Manchin, Merkley,Padilla,Tester& Warnock to strengthen our democracy," Kobuchar tweeted Tuesday morning, omitting spaces to provide room for more names in the tweet.
Manchin called the bill a "step in the right direction" of protecting voting rights.
“As elected officials, we also have an obligation to restore peoples' faith in our Democracy, and I believe that the commonsense provisions in this bill — like flexible voter ID requirements — will do just that,” Manchin said Tuesday.
The test for Manchin now will be: How many Republicans can he get to sign on to a bill that he thinks strikes a reasonable balance between protection rights and safeguarding elections? He's been down this road to nowhere before with the May vote on the bipartisan Jan. 6 commission that Republican senators ultimately blocked. Manchin could find no good reason for their reluctance to investigate the Capitol attack after Democrats met virtually every one of their demands for the commission.
"Choosing to put politics and political elections above the health of our Democracy is unconscionable," Manchin wrote in a statement after the vote. "And the betrayal of the oath we each take is something they will have to live with."
As if Republicans were the only ones who had to live with their betrayal and the rest of America didn't.
But Schumer clearly isn't going to let this vote drag out as Democrats confront the realities of stewarding two massive infrastructure/jobs bills to completion while meeting deadlines to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling over the next couple weeks.
The play here is likely to let Manchin fall flat on his face... again. And then circle back later to see if that changes the filibuster calculus of Manchin and perhaps Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who also claims to value voting rights while pledging her undying support for the filibuster that Republicans nuked in a heartbeat to pack the Supreme Court with conservative ideologues.
Rolling Stone reported over the weekend that President Joe Biden and his aides have signaled a willingness in recent weeks to have the president lean on the party’s so-called centrists to create a carveout for the filibuster.
“Biden assured Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he was ready to push for filibuster reform," wrote Rolling Stone's Andy Kroll. "Biden told Schumer: 'Chuck, you tell me when you need me to start making phone calls.'"
The upcoming vote on the Freedom to Vote Act may simply be part of a process designed to help move Manchin in a productive direction.