Democrats to Propose New Voting Rights Bill

The stripped-down measure is intended to demonstrate party unity in the face of Republican opposition to new federal voting standards.,

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Democrats propose a compromise bill on voting rights.

Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia was the lone Democrat to oppose a broader voting rights bill.
Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia was the lone Democrat to oppose a broader voting rights bill.Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times
  • Sept. 14, 2021Updated 5:54 p.m. ET

Senate Democrats united on Tuesday around a pared-down voting rights bill, escalating their efforts to build a case for aggressive action by Congress to push past Republican opposition and counter a rash of new G.O.P.-written ballot restrictions in states around the country.

The measure, the product of painstaking negotiations to bring progressives and moderates together on legislation that Democrats regard as crucial to preserving voting access and their own political competitiveness, faces steep odds in the Senate. The changes are highly unlikely to persuade Republicans to drop their opposition to legislation they have argued is an egregious overreach and a threat to their party.

But it represents a bid by leading Democrats to demonstrate to holdouts within their ranks that Republicans will never accept any measure to protect ballot access, and that the party’s only option for doing so is to weaken the filibuster so that a new law can be rammed through without Republicans.

“Republicans formed a wall of total opposition against any progress on voting rights in the United States Senate,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, who intends to try to bring up the measure next week. “But Republicans’ refusal to work with us is no excuse for not getting something done.”

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, quickly dismissed the measure, reiterating his view that the legislation represented unnecessary federal meddling in elections that have historically been the province of the states. He said the legislation reflected an effort by Democrats to “appoint themselves a national Board of Elections on steroids.”

“There is no reason for the federal government to take over how we conduct elections,” Mr. McConnell, a longtime foe of Democratic election and campaign proposals, told reporters on Tuesday. “It is a solution in search of a problem, and we will not be supporting that.”

The measure, hammered out in talks overseen by Mr. Schumer, was built on principles put forward by Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the lone Democrat who refused to endorse an earlier, much more sweeping piece of legislation called the For the People Act.

In introducing a scaled-back version, Democrats hoped to demonstrate to Mr. Manchin — now deeply invested in the measure as one of the chief authors — that Republicans would never sign on to a voting rights bill and, in doing so, wear down his opposition to weakening the filibuster. President Biden has come under mounting pressure from progressive activists to take a more active role in the push to overturn the filibuster to enact voting rights legislation.

Mr. Schumer noted that Mr. Manchin believed that the voting rights effort should be bipartisan.

“We are giving him the opportunity to do that with a bill that he supports and that he modified,” Mr. Schumer said. “If that doesn’t happen, we will cross that bridge when we come to it. As I’ve said, all options are on the table.”

The new bill, called the Freedom to Vote Act, drops some contentious elements of the initial bill, such as restructuring the Federal Election Commission and publicly financing congressional elections on a wide scale — a proposal ridiculed by Republicans. But it retains provisions to establish nationwide standards for ballot access, a response to voting restrictions that Republican legislatures have enacted around the country since the 2020 elections.

It would create a voter identification requirement, something that many Democrats have vehemently opposed. But the requirement would be far less onerous than the ones some states have tried to impose, allowing voters to present a variety of identification cards and documents in paper and digital forms. Democrats say the new Republican laws are particularly aimed at discouraging participation by minority and lower-income voters who might not have the specific identification some states require.

The revised measure would also require that states allow at minimum 15 consecutive days of early voting, including two weekends; ensure that all voters can request to vote by mail; establish new automatic voter registration programs; and make Election Day a national holiday.

It would mandate that states follow specific criteria when drawing new congressional districting lines to reduce partisan gerrymandering and would force disclosure of donors to so-called dark money groups. It would also establish new federal protections from partisan interference for state and local election administrators.

“Following the 2020 elections, in which more Americans voted than ever before, we have seen unprecedented attacks on our democracy in states across the country,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who leads the Rules Committee, which is responsible for election oversight. “These attacks demand an immediate federal response.”

Mr. Manchin had balked at the original legislation and offered elements of a voting bill he would back, prompting his negotiations with Ms. Klobuchar and other Democratic senators: Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Alex Padilla of California and Raphael Warnock of Georgia. Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, also participated.

While Democrats cheered the new version, they also recognized that they were very unlikely to attract sufficient Republican support to break a filibuster against any voting bill. With Democrats controlling 50 votes in the Senate, they would need 10 Republicans to join them in support of the legislation to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster, an exceedingly unlikely scenario. That means that they would have to unite to force a change to Senate rules governing the filibuster if the legislation were to have any chance.

Republicans have already blocked debate on a voting rights measure twice before, and most would be very reluctant to back a measure so fiercely opposed by Mr. McConnell and their colleagues.

“There’s no right way to do the wrong thing,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, said. “And we believe the wrong thing is to federalize the election process, which has been left to the states and communities since the very start.”

Despite his support for the legislation, Mr. Manchin has reiterated multiple times his refusal to abolish the filibuster, though he has also indicated a willingness to entertain some changes. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, has also said she is unwilling to scrap the filibuster.

The new proposal prompted an immediate call from progressive activists for Democrats to forge ahead on voting rights and not let Senate rules or Mr. McConnell stand in the way.

“President Biden and Senate Democrats must now move quickly to address the filibuster and prevent Senator McConnell from abusing Senate rules to prevent this bill from getting a fair up-or-down vote,” the anti-filibuster group Fix Our Senate said in a statement.

Mr. Manchin did not mention the filibuster in a statement that strongly endorsed the new proposal.

“The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and the Freedom to Vote Act is a step in the right direction towards protecting that right for every American,” Mr. Manchin said. “As elected officials, we also have an obligation to restore people’s faith in our democracy, and I believe that the common sense provisions in this bill — like flexible voter ID requirements — will do just that.”

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