For all the apparent division between establishment and MAGA Republicans, the party has presented a remarkably unified front on at least one issue: voter suppression. From state lawmakers to Washington power-brokers to the conservative money machine, the GOP has gone all in on its disenfranchisement campaign, mounting a well-coordinated effort across the country to make it harder for Americans—particularly Black Americans—to cast ballots. Their work is starting to pay off, with voting restrictions being signed into law recently in Iowa and Georgia. The latter is especially draconian, and was blasted by voting rights advocates like Stacey Abrams as “Jim Crow in a suit and tie.”
Georgia’s law also prompted a reaction from President Joe Biden, the first Democrat to win the state in about three decades, who likewise likened it to Jim Crow and said it made it all the more urgent for Democrats to pass the For the People Act, the election-reform bill aimed at protecting and expand voting rights and diluting the influence of big money in politics. “We have a moral and constitutional obligation to act,” Biden said last week, after Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed the suppression bill into law.
But for Democrats to succeed in preserving voting rights, they’ll need to be as united as their Republican counterparts—and it’s not clear whether that’s the case. Securing the vote is a priority for most, and the For the People Act passed the Democrat-controlled House earlier this month. But some have reservations, either with aspects of the package, or the process by which it would make it to Biden’s desk, or both. If those divisions run deep enough, they could jeopardize one of the most important action items on Democrats’ agenda, and leave democracy more vulnerable to GOP attacks. “Democrats have a narrow opportunity. There is a window here that could close anytime,” election law expert Richard Hasen told the New York Times. “I worry the kind of fights necessary to keep even the Democratic coalition together could blow up the whole thing and lose the chance to get anything done.”
Disagreements within the ranks can sometimes be overstated, particularly at this stage in the life cycle of a bill, with hairline fractures in the party misdiagnosed as full-on breaks. There’s always going to be some back and forth—negotiations that can feel like threats until leaders close ranks and rally their members around something they believe to be good, if not perfect. But with such a slim Senate majority, and such a precarious path for S1 to Biden’s signature, a Democrat with real, unresolvable issues with the bill could sink it. And that could be the case for conservative Democrat Joe Manchin.
The West Virginia senator has already made his objection to the bill’s most promising path forward—elimination of the filibuster—clear, though, like Biden, he has expressed openness to amending the procedure to make it more difficult to use. But he also seems to have issues with the substance of the bill, concerned about the federal government usurping states’ mandates on elections, and seemingly opposed to any legislation to protect voting rights that doesn’t include input from the very lawmakers working to take them away. “Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits, but will inevitably only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government,” Manchin said last week. “We can and we must reform our federal elections together.”
That sounds nice, except for the fact that one of the two parties is actively working to undermine democracy and is unlikely to work with Democrats to fight the disenfranchisement efforts they hope to benefit from. It’s possible Manchin knows this and is playing the heel for now, only to get on board with his 49 Democratic colleagues in the Senate, as he did in voting to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill this month. But it’s also possible that he’ll force Democrats to water down the bill, or to break it up into smaller parts to put forth something narrower on voting rights. Something like that may have a better chance of passing. The question is, would such a bill be enough to protect Americans’ rights against aggressive GOP attacks? “There is a baseline commitment to keeping this bill together and passing it as is,” government watchdog Fred Wertheimer told the Times. “With 49 co-sponsors of this bill, it’s not a situation where one should be negotiating against themselves to satisfy the desires of opponents.”
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