U.S. Senate Democrats scrambled to unite around a sweeping election reform bill that they hope to begin debating next week, in the face of Republican opposition and moves by several states to pass laws placing new restrictions on voting.
Some Democrats expressed optimism over a compromise plan proposed by moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, details of which were released on Wednesday. “I am encouraged by these recent developments,” Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia told reporters. Georgia is one of a half-dozen U.S. states that passed tough new controls on voting procedures.
Warnock said Manchin’s ideas were “very significant” because they could unite the 48 Senate Democrats and two independents, boosting chances for passing a bill. It was not yet clear whether any Republicans would climb aboard, however. Under normal Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to pass any measure.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday rejected the idea of compromise, saying “states, not the federal government, should decide how to run their own elections.” Republican-controlled state legislatures say new restrictions on voting are needed to improve election security following former President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that his election defeat was the result of widespread fraud.
Although multiple courts, state election officials and Trump’s own administration have rejected the claims as untrue and Trump has not produced any evidence, a sizable number of Republican voters believe him anyway, polls show. Democrat Amy Klobuchar, who chairs a Senate committee overseeing election procedures in the United States, called Manchin’s compromise “a good faith effort.”
But she stopped short of embracing it and instead said, “We’ll continue to work through his ideas.” Republican Senator Mike Lee said he believed the voting rights bill would hurt his party’s electoral chances: “This bill isn’t about strengthening democracy. This bill is about strengthening Democrats.”
The issue is urgent for Democrats, who hold razor-thin majorities in both houses of Congress after the 2020 elections. History and a once-a-decade redistricting process, based on the 2020 U.S. Census, favor Republicans’ chances of recapturing control of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections.
“If we don’t get this bill passed, our democratic system is on the line. Voting is fundamental,” said Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren. The flurry of state initiatives restricting voting is playing out in presidential election battlegrounds including Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona.
“We’ve been tracking voting legislation for well over a decade and we have not seen a push this aggressive and intense before,” said Wendy Weiser, an elections expert at the non-partisan Brennan Centre for Justice. “Voting rights are under assault.”
Senate Democrats’ first preference would be to pass a version of the “For the People” bill approved by the House of Representatives in March. That sweeping measure would block many of the restrictions imposed by new state laws and require states to turn over the task of redrawing congressional districts to independent commissions. It also would impose new controls on campaign contributions, including making them more transparent.
Democrats’ backup plan would be an expanded version of another bill, named after the late civil rights leader Representative John Lewis, that would omit some of the larger bill’s more sweeping changes, including on campaign funding.
Manchin, a former West Virginia state election official, has proposed revisions that include requiring voters to prove their identities. Some states have used that to impose cumbersome requirements that discourage voter turnout.
Warnock said he supported voter ID laws as long as they were not aimed at suppressing the vote. If Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could nail down 50 votes, he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would then face some decisions.
The 50 Senate votes could propel more negotiations. Or Democrats could signal they might finally be ready to use their majority powers to alter the chamber’s rules to scrap the supermajority requirement for passing this major bill. That is a long-shot given Manchin’s opposition to changing the “filibuster” rule.