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Complaining that “the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized,” Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) published an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail yesterday saying that he would vote against S1, the For the People Act, arguing that protecting the right to vote should “never be done in a partisan manner.” Because Republicans do not support federal voting rights, he says, passing such a measure would “all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen.”
Critics immediately jumped on this declaration, noting that the For the People Act would address state laws enacted by Republicans alone to restrict voting and gerrymander states in a partisan fashion. Voting rights scholar Ari Berman tweeted: “I don’t recall Republicans asking for bipartisan support before they introduced 400 voter suppression bills & enacted 22 new voter suppression laws in 14 states so far this year.”
Essentially, Manchin appears to be blaming the person calling the fire department, rather than the arsonist, and then saying the firefighters need to work with the guys holding the gasoline cans and matches.
There are currently two election reform bills before the Senate. The For the People Act covers a wide range of reforms. It sets standards for federal voting in each state, including online and same day voter registration, early voting, and mail-in ballots. It also would end the ability to invest “dark money” in politics, the system by which nonprofits, which do not have to disclose their donors, give money to political causes (this is not small change: in 2020, more than $1 billion—with a “B”—went into the election, most of it helping Democrats). It would end partisan gerrymandering—something some Democrats also oppose—and would strengthen rules about lobbying.
And here’s a twist to this story: according to political consulting firm Lake Research Partners, 68% of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support the For the People Act. In a March 2021 article in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer, who is simply a crackerjack investigative reporter, broke the story that Republicans were privately dismayed at how overwhelmingly popular the For the People Act is.
In a private conference call on January 8, 2021, between one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) policy advisers and the leaders of several prominent conservative groups, the speakers “expressed alarm at the broad popularity of the bill’s provision calling for more public disclosure about secret political donors.” They concluded it wasn’t worth trying to convince voters to oppose the bill. Instead, they decided to kill it in the Senate, through strategies like the filibuster. “When it comes to donor privacy, I can’t stress enough how quickly things could get out of hand,” McConnell’s policy adviser Steve Donaldson said.
The other major piece of election reform legislation before the Senate is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the pieces of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted in 2013 by the Supreme Court in the Shelby County v. Holder decision. In 2006, the Senate renewed the Voting Rights Act by a vote of 98-0. Today, 70% of Americans support the John Lewis Act.
In his op-ed, Manchin advocated the John Lewis Act and noted that Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has joined him in calling for passing the bill through the regular order. But while the Senate renewed the Voting Rights Act unanimously in 2006, it is not clear that even ten Republicans will vote to support it in 2021. Although several of the Republicans who voted for the Voting Rights Act in 2006 are still in the Senate, they now oppose the John Lewis Act. Today, Murkowski, who is the only Republican on record for the new measure, admitted it would be hard to find ten yes votes.
Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post points out that if there ever were a reason to come together, it was on the bill for the creation of an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection, and only six Republicans joined that effort, enabling their party to kill the measure. So the idea that there will be ten votes for the voting rights bill seems optimistic.
But there is a weird twist in all these gyrations over protecting the fundamental right of citizens to vote. In his op-ed, Manchin also said he will not agree to eliminate the filibuster, which is the Senate rule that enables the minority to block legislation simply by saying they will not permit a vote on it. People have pointed out that protecting a Senate rule rather than democracy is, well, odd… but the story might well be more complicated.
Manchin has indicated his willingness to reform the filibuster, either taking it back to the traditional form of the talking filibuster, or perhaps excluding election bills in the same way that financial bills and judicial nominees are currently not covered by the filibuster. One of the things at stake here might be that, as a Democrat in a strongly Republican state, Manchin likes that the filibuster protects him from having to vote on Democratic bills that Republicans hate. But might he be willing to do a carve out to protect voting?
Well, McConnell today said that Democrats were teeing up votes this month on paycheck fairness, gun control, and voting that are “designed to fail” in order to convince lawmakers to gut the filibuster. But what’s interesting about that declaration is that those measures are all actually popular among voters. At the same time, McConnell appeared to win the filibuster over the January 6 commission only by appealing to his caucus to vote against it as a personal favor to him. Even so, lots of senators chose to be absent on that day. It is not clear to me that McConnell is confident he can hold the filibuster wall as he was able to in the past, and having continually to defend filibusters of popular measures can only hurt the Republicans.
This afternoon, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) tweeted that she would continue to fight to get voting, ethics reform, and campaign finance reform passed through the Senate, suggesting that there is wheeling and dealing to be done.
While the fight over voting and the filibuster is taking up a lot of oxygen, there are a few other big stories breaking today. A newly released recording of a call between Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019 shows Giuliani quite clearly trying to trade an investigation into Hunter Biden for the U.S. aid Congress had approved for Ukraine, and Vice President Kamala Harris is in Guatemala, where she warned migrants not to try to come to the United States without following formal procedures.
Also… the U.S. has recovered several million dollars paid to cyberhackers who held an East Coast oil pipeline hostage last month. At the time, the company, Colonial Pipeline, told reporters they had paid the ransom to get their operations back up and running quickly, but they had actually turned quickly to the FBI, which apparently asked them to pay the ransom so its officials could follow the money trail. The hackers apparently operated out of Russia, although they were not affiliated with the Russian government.
Later today, news broke that major global crime networks have been broken open as criminals were communicating on an encrypted network broken into by the Australian Federal Police and then run by the FBI. The operation involved the cooperation of 16 different countries, and it targeted some of the world’s leading criminals. Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, called it the “most sophisticated effort to date to disrupt the activities of criminals operating from all four corners of the world.”
Guessing this particular story has quite long legs….
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.