Joe Manchin, Stacey Abrams, and the Next Steps on Voting Rights

The West Virginia Senator and the Georgia Democrat kinda, sorta team up to give voting rights a fighting chance

Well, Joe Manchin has finally spoken. After months of vague statements of opposition to the For the People Act, Manchin finally laid out which parts of the bill he supports. This is a critical first step towards possibly doing something. The whole process was wrapped around the axle of Manchin’s incomprehensible calls for bipartisanship. He repeated he would only support a bipartisan bill, but refused to say what he wanted in (or out) of that bill. The circular debate was testing the patience (and sanity) of advocates who correctly fear that doing nothing to protect our democracy is the same as dooming it.

Democrats were on a trajectory for a vote that would not only fail to get the requisite 60 votes to overcome a filibuster but would also fall short of garnering a majority. This would have been an embarrassing setback for the party. Manchin’s proposed changes offer a path forward, albeit a very narrow one. Manchin’s compromise elicited a lot of anger from some advocates because it included voter identification provisions, which are the centerpiece of a racist voter suppression strategy. Manchin was playing CYA for the recriminations that would come his way if no bill passed, and Republicans seized power through the twin evils of suppressing voters and gerrymandering districts.

The dynamic changed on Thursday morning when Stacey Abrams, America’s most prominent voting rights advocate, endorsed the Manchin compromise during an interview on CNN.

Chaos and confusion abound. Is there hope? What did Manchin do? Why is Stacey Abrams on board with voter ID? What happens next?

Here’s my take.

What’s in Manchin’s Proposal?

The list of provisions that Manchin supports is quite long. While it doesn’t contain everything from the For the People Act, Manchin’s list includes making Election Day a holiday, automatic voter registration through the DMV, at least 15 days for early voting, more robust disclosure rules for political spending, requiring the president and vice president to release their tax returns, and a ban on partisan gerrymandering.

Manchin’s proposal excludes provisions mandating universal vote-by-mail, public financing of elections, and weakens the voting rights’ protections included in the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — a companion bill to the For the People Act that restores the elements of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.

The biggest problem with the Manchin compromise is the inclusion of language mandating voters show identification prior to casting their ballot. It’s important to note that voter ID laws serve no purpose other than disenfranchising voters of color and poorer voters. The voter fraud these laws are putatively designed to combat is non-existent.

The voter identification provision is a very tough pill to swallow. Some voting rights advocates, including Latosha Brown of Black Voters Matter, immediately rejected the compromise.

Why Stacey Abrams Endorsed the Proposal

No one fought harder for voting rights in recent years than Stacey Abrams. Were it not for an explicit Republican strategy to suppress the vote and purge the voter rolls, Abrams would have been elected Governor of Georgia in 2018. After her loss, she formed Fair Fight to combat voter suppression. It’s safe to say that Joe Biden would not be president, and Democrats would not control the Senate without Stacey Abrams. It was surprising to see her put her reputation behind Manchin’s proposal.

I believe Stacey Abrams endorsed the Manchin proposal for three reasons:

First, she recognizes the power of her endorsement. By saying she supports the compromise, Abrams prevented progressives from killing it before it had a chance. There is no one with more credibility on the topic of voting rights. If she supports the proposal, then we should be open-minded to its benefits.

Second, Manchin’s support for ending partisan gerrymandering is a huge win. Democrats can win in states with voter identification laws, and many did in 2020. Democrats cannot win in gerrymandered districts designed explicitly to ensure that Republicans win. Without banning partisan gerrymandering, Democrats could be locked out of power for a decade.

Finally, as a former legislator from Georgia, Abrams understands that progress requires compromise. Is Manchin’s proposal better than the version of the For the People Act that passed in the House? Absolutely not. Does it include everything we want? Nope. Is it better than the current law? Abso-fucking-lutely. Even with the voter ID provision, this compromise would be the biggest victory for democracy in decades.

What’s Next? Is There Hope?

It’s impossible to tell whether Manchin is being strategic or naive. He immediately followed up his announcement with another declaration that he didn’t intend to eliminate the filibuster and that he hoped to get ten Republicans on board with his plan.

Unsurprisingly, Mitch McConnell held a press conference on Thursday morning to register his absolute disgust at the idea of making voting more accessible. The Republican Leader declared:

It still subverts the First Amendment to supercharge cancel culture and the Left's name-and-shame campaign model. It takes redistricting away from state legislatures and hands it over to computers.

I would note that these words mean nothing. It’s just a series of Tucker Carlson Mad Libs. In addition to announcing his opposition, McConnell declared that no Republican would vote for it. This is not surprising. Protecting voting rights means weakening the Republican grip on power; and Republicans will never allow a bill that truly protects voting rights.

So, this means it’s all over, right?

Maybe not. The Intercept conducted a recent call with supporters of the group No Labels. In this call, Manchin was much more open to filibuster reform than his public statements suggest. According to the report, Manchin said:

Right now, 60 is where I planted my flag, but as long as they know that I’m going to protect this filibuster, we’re looking at good solutions. I think, basically, it should be [that] 41 people have to force the issue versus the 60 that we need in the affirmative. So find 41 in the negative. … I think one little change that could be made right now is basically anyone who wants to filibuster ought to be required to go to the floor and basically state your objection and why you’re filibustering and also state what you think needs to change that’d fix it, so you would support it. To me, that’s pretty constructive.

There is no path to voting rights’ legislation reform without reforming the filibuster, and there is no path to reforming the filibuster without Joe Manchin changing his mind. Getting 50 votes on a voting rights’ bill is the first step to having that conversation. That means we need a bill that both Joe Manchin and Stacey Abrams support. There is a lot of distance to travel, and the odds are not in our favor, but for the first time in a long time, there is a path.