Opinion

Joe Manchin is right

The For the People Act is a badly flawed bill that shouldn't pass in its current form

After months of drawing fire from progressives for refusing to support nuking the filibuster so that he and his fellow Democrats can pass sweeping legislation on a party-line vote in the Senate, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin ensured the enduring wrath of his party's activist base by announcing in an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Sunday that he would be voting against the For the People Act.

Though you'd never know it from the howls of rage from the left, Manchin is right about just about everything surrounding this bill.

To begin with, the For the People Act is a mess. Written before the 2020 election, it was originally intended as a "message bill" containing a grab bag of election-related reforms that Democrats (especially in progressive House districts) could run on without seriously thinking they would become law. The bill contains some good, if underbaked, ideas to restrict gerrymandering — though plenty of Democrats oppose them. Indeed, there's ample reason to believe that Democratic support for the bill overall is far weaker than one might gather from the fact that the bill has 49 co-sponsors in the Senate.

Then there are the campaign-finance provisions (opposed, in part, by the ACLU on free-speech grounds) that seem designed to address the problems of a decade or more ago. (Small-money donations have a far greater impact on politics today than "dark money" from a handful of right-wing billionaires.) The bill's litany of provisions covering government ethics are even more scattershot and lacking in an overarching rationale.

Worst of all, because the bill dates from before the 2020 election, it does nothing at all to address what is by far the most pressing problem of the moment, which is Republican-controlled states taking vote certification out of the hands of election officials and giving it to partisan legislatures. If such procedures had been in place during the two months between Election Day last November and Jan. 6 of this year, Donald Trump's efforts to get the vote tally tossed out in crucial swing states may well have been successful.

The best case for passing the For the People Act in its current form amounts to something like, "It's better than nothing." But is it? Does it really make sense for Democrats to expend limited political capital, federalize elections in dozens of ways, and not actually address the biggest election-related problem confronting the country? Are we supposed to believe that Democrats will be better positioned to address the problem later, after they've already passed a bloated and ill-defined election-reform bill on a party-line vote that required eliminating the filibuster?

Manchin doesn't think so, and that's one big thing he gets right.

Another is his opposition to eliminating the filibuster more generally.

The filibuster may not be a noble legislative provision designed to incentivize compromise, as some (including Manchin) sometimes make it out to be. But it does give the minority party the power to block legislation it strongly opposes, as Democrats did on several occasions during the Trump administration. Eliminating it now, less than four years later and perhaps less the four years from the next Republican president and Senate majority, is incredibly shortsighted. Indeed, it's the kind of thing that only makes sense if you fancifully assume, as both parties far too often have in recent years, that your own side is on the cusp of achieving an enduring majority and will never again find itself in the minority.

Then, finally, there is Manchin's principled opposition to attempting to pass voting reform on a partisan basis because doing so will ensure, he claims, that "partisan divisions continue to deepen." Some progressives will mock such concerns on the grounds that Republicans over the past five years, and especially in the events leading up to and following the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, have done vastly more to undermine democracy.

This might be true, but it doesn't mean things can't get worse. They always can. And one way to assure that they will is for Democrats to unilaterally pass sweeping reforms of the rules of the electoral process over unified Republican opposition — something that would guarantee that roughly half the country considers those revised rules to be illegitimate. That would move us a few steps closer to the full-on democratic breakdown that I've recently described as "the big American divorce."

In response to this objection, progressives are likely to offer up an anguished cry of frustration: "But we have to do something!" To which Manchin provides an answer: Democrats and Republicans should work together to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, an update to the Voting Rights Act that would modernize "the formula states and localities must use to ensure proposed voting laws do not restrict the rights of any particular group or population."

That's a fine suggestion, to which I'd add another. A small group of Democratic and Republican senators could start working from scratch on a more limited bipartisan bill that prioritizes election integrity. Democrats could insist on receiving assurances that the results of elections will be accepted as valid by state and federal officials in return for Republicans receiving assurances that people who cast and count ballots are doing so in accordance with the law.

The group could also try to address concerns about gerrymandering in terms that both parties can live with — which means in terms of their self-interest. Just as it would be foolish for Democrats to blow up the filibuster when they might want to take advantage of it in the future, so Republicans might accept modest restrictions on gerrymandering if they were persuaded that it would protect them against egregious Democrats district-drawing down the road.   

Would it work? In truth, I doubt it — because of the enormous distance and distrust between the parties. What Republicans in states around the country consider perfectly reasonable efforts to regularize voting rules after the outlier pandemic election of 2020, Democrats hyperbolically describe as a return to Jim Crow. What Democrats think of as an essential move to ensure that Donald Trump's quasi-coup during the transition to the Biden administration will never be tried again, Republicans irresponsibly dismiss as an unnecessary meddling of the federal government in state election laws and procedures. To say that the parties are talking past each other would be a massive understatement.

But what is the alternative to trying? More name-calling and denunciation on Twitter? More teeth gnashing and foot stomping by progressive activists? Threatening Manchin with a primary challenge from his left — as if that would accomplish anything other than increasing the chances that the GOP adds to its margin in the Senate by taking his seat in 2024?

If Democrats want to govern like they have a massive mandate, they need to win a lot more votes than they did last November. Unless and until that happens, they have no choice but to try and work with the opposition, especially when it comes to reforming the country's electoral rules.

That's something that Joe Manchin understands. The rest of his party would be wise to take heed.

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