The demise of the For the People Act — the far-reaching voting rights bill that Republicans blocked in the Senate on Tuesday — will come as a crushing blow to progressives and reformers, who have portrayed the law as an essential tool for saving democracy.
But it was a flawed bill that had little chance of testing the limits of what if anything is still possible in Washington. Voting rights activists and Democratic lawmakers may even find that the collapse of this law opens up more plausible, if still highly unlikely, paths to reform.
The law, known as H.R. 1 or S. 1, was full of hot-button measures — from public financing of elections to national mail voting — that were only tangentially related to safeguarding democracy, and all but ensured its failure in the Senate. Its supporters insisted the law should set the floor for voting rights; in truth, it set the floor at the ceiling, by guaranteeing a level of voting access that would be difficult to surpass.
At the same time, reformers did not add provisions to tackle the most insidious and serious threat to democracy: election subversion, where partisan election officials might use their powers to overturn electoral outcomes.
Instead, it focused on the serious but less urgent issues that animated reformers at the time the bill was first proposed in 2019: allegations of corruption in the Trump administration, the rise of so-called dark money in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, or the spate of voter identification laws passed in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s election victories.
Even a cursory look at the effort by former President Donald J. Trump to subvert the 2020 election revealed a number of vulnerabilities in the electoral system, from the risk that a partisan election administrator might simply refuse to certify an unfavorable election result to the possibility that a vice president might choose not to count a certified electoral slate. None of those vulnerabilities were addressed.
Those concerns have only escalated over the last several months as Republicans have advanced bills that not only imposed new limits on voting, but also afforded the G.O.P. greater control over election administration. The new powers include the ability to strip secretaries of state of some of their authority and remove members of local election boards. The New York Times reported over the weekend how some Democrats on local boards in Georgia, including people of color, were losing their positions.
It’s true that the 2020 election and Mr. Trump’s unprecedented attempt to undermine it revealed the fragility of American democracy in different and more fundamental ways than even the most perspicacious legislator could have anticipated. Originally, the bill was seen as a “political statement,” a progressive “wish list” or a “messaging bill,” not as the basis for a realistic legislative effort.
It was not designed to appeal to the moderate Senate Democrats, who progressives nonetheless hoped would eliminate the filibuster even as they insisted on different proposals and a bipartisan approach.
Yet oddly, the bill was so far from passage that reformers still have cause for some semblance of hope. Nearly every stone was left unturned.
As a result, many other avenues for reform remain to be pursued. None seem likely to be enacted in today’s political climate. All are more plausible than the bill that died in the Senate on Tuesday.
One of those avenues emerged in the final days of the push for H.R. 1: a grand bargain, like the one recently suggested by Joe Manchin III, the moderate Democratic senator from West Virginia who provoked outrage among progressives when he said he would oppose the bill in its current form.
The Manchin compromise resembles H.R. 1 in crucial ways. It does not address election subversion any more than H.R. 1 does. And it still seeks sweeping changes to voting, ethics, campaign finance and redistricting law. But it offers Republicans a national voter identification requirement, while relenting on many of the provisions that provoke the most intense Republican opposition.
Mr. Manchin’s proposal nonetheless provoked intense Republican opposition. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri derided it as a “Stacey Abrams” bill. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader from Kentucky, appeared to suggest that no federal election law would earn his support.
More generally, it is hard to imagine how Republicans could be enticed to accept stringent limits on gerrymandering, given the lopsided partisan consequences of such a ban.
But the strategy behind the Manchin proposal could nonetheless serve as a basis for serious legislative efforts: Democrats can offer Republicans provisions they actually want on voting, like new photo identification requirements, and see what that buys them.
The willingness of Ms. Abrams, who leads the Georgia-based voting rights group Fair Fight, to support the Manchin compromise, despite its embrace of voter ID measures — an archetypal voter suppression provision — suggests that there may be room to explore options that might attract support from Republicans and haven’t previously been considered.
Another avenue is a version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would again subject Southern states to obtain federal clearance before making changes to their voting system — a requirement that a 2013 Supreme Court decision gutted.
The Battle Over Voting Rights
After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and change how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.
- A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become central issues in American politics. As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
- The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
- More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
- Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most likely face steep legal challenges.
- Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
- Texas: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. S.B. 7 included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting.
- Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.
Restoring the preclearance condition is of considerable symbolic significance, but it offers far less to reformers than the Manchin compromise. It does nothing to address the laws that Republicans have enacted this year. It would do little to protect against election subversion. It does not check Republican efforts outside the South. And it relies on the federal court system, which has a more limited view of the Voting Rights Act than reformers would like.
But unlike H.R. 1, restoring federal preclearance does have the support of Mr. Manchin and Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska. Mr. Manchin also seemed willing to embrace a variety of largely unspecified changes that might make preclearance somewhat more amenable to the Republicans, including an objective test to determine whether jurisdictions should be subjected to or relieved from preclearance and limits on the power of the attorney general. It remains doubtful that any changes would attract significant Republican support, but it also remains untested.
A final avenue is an even narrower bill, comprising only provisions that attract bipartisan support. It remains to be seen whether even a single idea falls into this category. But many of the hypothesized proposals for addressing election subversion might have some chance to find Republican support, like reforms to the rules for counting electoral votes, and funding for election administration.
Other potential areas of agreement are a requirement for paper ballots; ballot chain-of-custody requirements; standards for certification of federal elections and establishing voter eligibility; and clarifying whether and when judges or local officials can defy a state legislature.
None of these proposals necessarily advantage either political party. All would have a chance to avoid the central, politicized debate over voter suppression and voting rights.
Realistically, even the most innocuous proposals would have a challenging path to passage. The window for bipartisan cooperation on these issues may have closed several months ago, as memories of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters were supplanted by politically charged fights over voting rights and voter suppression. Republicans have few incentives to support a bill, even if watered down considerably.
Yet all of these new avenues for reformers have something simple in common: They involve an earnest attempt to win 60 votes in the Senate, something that H.R. 1 did not. Many progressives scoff at the idea, but if moderate Democrats can be taken at their word, then reformers never had a choice but to at least try to find Republican support.
Voting rights activists on Tuesday called for a new push to ensure voting rights, and Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader from New York, pledged to keep fighting, calling the Senate vote “the starting gun, not the finish line.”
Perhaps reformers will surprise themselves and pull off a rare legislative win. More likely, their effort will fail and they can hope that their failure will demonstrate the impossibility of bipartisanship to Senate moderates, perhaps reopening the conversation about eliminating the filibuster.
Wherever the effort might end, a more realistic legislative push begins with an earnest effort to write a bill that is more responsive to the current threats to the system and is designed to win enough votes to pass.
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