While the rest of the Senate Democrats
fight for a broad voting rights
bill, Sen. Joe Manchin
(D-W.Va.) is pushing for a bill that would restore elements of the Voting Rights Act on the assumption that at least one Republican supports it.
But, while the bill Manchin wants Democrats to prioritize is important, it will do nothing to address the current assault on voting rights in Republican-controlled states.
Manchin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sent a letter to Senate colleagues seeking bipartisan support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a not-yet-introduced bill that would subject any proposed changes in voting rights in certain states and election jurisdictions to Justice Department
review to guard against aggression.
Manchin argued that the bill named after Lewis, the late civil rights
leader and Georgia
congressman, is more likely to gain bipartisan support. Republicans
largely oppose the For the People Act
, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
(R-Ky.) has vowed to kill it, and all nine GOP
members voted against it in committee.
Furthermore, prioritizing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would jeopardize it and other voting reforms advocated by Lewis.
Manchin's strategy has already been met with some criticism.
In comments to reporters, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
(D-NY) quickly rejected Manchin's prioritization of one bill over the other. Schumer has promised a floor vote on the For the People Act (also known as H.R. 1/S. 1) and has stated that "everything is on the table," including changing the Senate's filibuster
rules, which Manchin opposes, to pass it.
First, the measure Manchin wants to prioritize, while critical to protecting voting rights in the future, would, in its most recent form, apply only to future legislation, not the avalanche of voter suppression
bills being passed and enacted now in Republican-run states; the For the People Act, on the other hand, would override many of these provisions by mandating a set floor of votes
On Thursday, four Democratic House members issued a "Dear Colleague" letter rebuking Manchin's stance and urging Congress to pass both bills.
“Any proposal that ignores H.R. 1 in favor of nationwide preclearance alone is either dangerously naive or simply misinformed about what is happening in states across the country,” wrote Reps. Mondaire Jones (N.Y.), Val Demings
(Fla.), Colin Allred (Texas
), and Nikema Williams (Ga.).
“Preclearance does nothing to address the voter suppression laws that states have already enacted; it can only block new restrictions,” they added, adding that “it does nothing to repair the damage that states like Georgia and Florida
have already done, and that other states will do prior to the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.”
Furthermore, some areas of voter access that the For the People Act expands and protects, such as vote-by-mail, are so new that they lack the kind of record of discriminatory effect required to be included in a new pre-clearance formula, according to a congressional staffer working on both bills, which means that such restrictions could still be enacted even if pre-clearance authority is restored.
Manchin's preference for one bill over the other undermines both bills' interdependence.
“They are both really important components, and they work well together because they do different things,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections
program, which supports both bills.
Whereas the For the People Act covers past actions, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act does not, the proposed bill covers as-yet-unknown efforts to suppress votes in a racially discriminatory manner.
“There are a lot of things that the For the People Act would help with, but once that happens, it’s static,” Pérez said, adding that the pre-clearance provision protects against unknowns.
Even if the Voting Rights Act's pre-clearance authority is restored, its enforcement is subject to the whims of the presidential administration and the courts. Previous Republican administrations have routinely refused to seek strict adherence to the law's pre-clearance authority, and the federal courts are now stacked with conservative justices appointed by former President Donald Trump
who adamantly opposed the law's pre-clearance authority.
Indeed, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was enacted in response to the conservative judiciary's hostility toward voting rights laws. In 2013, the conservative Supreme Court
gutted the Voting Rights Act's pre-clearance authority in the Shelby County v. Holder decision by a 5-4 vote.
Chief Justice John Roberts
famously declared in that case that “the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,” and that “blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.” (The actual record contradicts this assertion, as the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her Shelby County dissent.)
While Roberts declared overt racial discrimination, the court's decision left it up to Congress to create a new formula identifying discriminatory practices that could be used by the Department of Justice
and the courts in a restored pre-clearance system, which is what the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act seeks to do.
However, in order to ensure that the bill meets the court's standards, Democrats are gradually building an evidentiary record to support the new pre-clearance formula that will be incorporated into the bill, which is why the Manchin-backed bill has not yet been introduced.
hope to complete the evidence collection by the end of the summer and introduce the bill around the end of August or early September, with House passage following further committee hearings on the introduced bill.
This timeline implies that Manchin's efforts to secure significant Republican support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are likely doomed, and Democrats may have to wait until the fall or winter before seeing any resolution to their push to expand and protect voting rights, during which Republicans will continue to roll back those rights in the states.