New election overhaul bill faces same Republican opposition

Activists plan nationwide demonstrations to rally support

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III says he hopes to muster the support of at least 10 Republicans for the new voting rights legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III says he hopes to muster the support of at least 10 Republicans for the new voting rights legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 14, 2021 at 1:15pm

Senate Democrats offered a slimmed-down version of their party’s signature elections and campaign finance overhaul Tuesday, but the new measure still appears unlikely to pass because no Republicans support it.

The bill includes many provisions from Democrats’ previous sweeping election overhaul bills that passed the House but stalled in the Senate, and it leaves out changes to federal lobbying laws and an update to the Voting Rights Act.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Monday that he was planning to bring the compromise bill for a vote as soon as next week. It has support from all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats.

To pass it, Senate Democrats must either persuade 10 of their Republican colleagues to back the new measure or decmuide whether to roll back the chamber rule that requires 60 votes to overcome a filibuster for legislation.

Neither option appears probable. Pivotal Senate Democrats, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III, have said they will not support a change to the filibuster rules, leaving even the compromise bill in peril.

Manchin helped craft the new bill and told CNN on Tuesday that some of his GOP colleagues “understand we need guardrails.” He said his goal is to muster the support of at least 10 Republicans for the legislation.

That is a tall order, with much of the Senate Republican Conference having long opposed federal involvement of any kind in state election operations.

One question will be whether Republicans think a possible filibuster of the legislation could be enough to shift Manchin’s long-held position that the 60-vote requirement for cloture on legislation is sacrosanct.

“Even though eliminating the filibuster would give Sen. Manchin more influence and power over legislation, he feels so strongly that preserving it is good for the country and the Senate, he will not eliminate it,” said Jonathan Kott, a former Manchin aide who is now a partner with the firm Capitol Counsel.

Activists pushing for the measure said they planned demonstrations over the coming days to rally support, increasingly aiming their message toward President Joe Biden as well as senators, such as Manchin.

That included a demonstration Tuesday near the Capitol, as well as nationwide rallies planned for Friday — including in West Virginia, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

The compromise bill, dubbed the Freedom to Vote Act, incorporates much of a sweeping overhaul that House Democrats passed earlier this year. The Senate version of that bill remains stalled in the Rules and Administration Committee.

The Senate tried in June to bring a revised version of the elections and campaign finance overhaul up for debate but mustered only 50 votes, short of the 60 needed.

The new Senate version, like the original overhaul, would establish minimum standards for voting across the country, such as same-day voter registration, universal voting by mail and minimum periods for early voting.

It would also require additional disclosures for groups that engage in election-related spending. The revised bill seeks to put an end to partisan gerrymandering by setting specific criteria for congressional redistricting. It also provides new protections for election workers and would set Election Day as a federal holiday.

Many of those same proposals have already generated the ire of Republicans, led in opposition by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republicans, including McConnell, have lambasted the idea of giving Americans the day off to vote, for example.

McConnell said Tuesday that the revised bill is “a solution in search of a problem."

Democrats say such provisions are urgently needed to respond to new state laws in GOP-controlled enclaves such as Florida, Georgia and Texas. New laws in those states have rolled back some of the 2020 pandemic voting practices, such as voting by mail, and Democrats say that would make it harder for people to vote, particularly people of color.

But the new measure, which runs nearly 600 pages, omits changes to federal lobbying laws and a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices that the original bills included.

The new Senate compromise measure does not include updates to the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance formula. That bill is a separate piece of legislation that passed the House recently.

Named for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., it focuses on restoring the Justice Department’s authority over election law changes in states and jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices against minorities. The Senate may take up that bill separately.

Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public policy and government affairs at Common Cause, said the slimmed-down version of the bill unveiled Tuesday is “still a very bold bill and still represents a huge step forward in voting.”

“The gerrymandering pieces are huge,” Spaulding said. “The bill ends gerrymandering, which is a huge win for voters. It sets clear national standards for voting and curbs the undue influence of money in politics.”

Common Cause is part of a broader group, called the Declaration for American Democracy Coalition, that has been pushing for the overhauls. The group was behind Tuesday’s rally near the Capitol and is behind those planned for later in the week in the states, said Jana Morgan, the coalition’s director.

“This bill is a compromise bill so you never expect to get everything you want,” she said.

The group will continue to advocate ethical standards for federal judges and other provisions that were not included in the revised measure, Morgan said.

The revamped bill does include a proposal for public financing of House campaigns, setting up a public matching system similar to one included in the House-passed overhaul.

Fred Wertheimer, who runs Democracy 21, said his group would continue to press for the lobbying and ethics provisions of the original bill but backs the new iteration. “We will fight that battle separately,” he said of the omitted provisions.

“There’s now a majority ready to pass this legislation, which remains transformational legislation,” he said. “Right now, this is the focus, and the bottom line is this legislation is absolutely essential to protect the fundamental right to vote and to protect our democracy, given what’s been going on in state legislatures.”

Niels Lesniewski and Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.