Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, is in a position of power that is rare for a senator from a small state. As the 50th vote for the Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break the tie, Manchin can make or break the Democratic agenda. The most important issues Manchin controls are electoral reform and the status of the filibuster.
The two major election reform efforts are S1 (For The People Act) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The main provisions of S1 are: Election Day a public holiday, partisan gerrymandering outlawed, 15 consecutive days of early voting, ballots would have paper copies, and automatic voter registration through state DMVs. It also has a lot of good government proposals, such as preventing foreign entities from funding U.S. elections, preventing conflicts of interest, requiring more disclosure (donors, tax returns), and preventing elected officials from profiting financially from their positions. It is a large bill with a lot of provisions, many of which are not controversial. The reason Republicans are adamantly opposed to it is that it prevents them from using false claims of election fraud to make it difficult for likely Democratic voters to vote.
As a Democrat elected in West Virginia, Manchin’s independence from the Democratic Party helps him politically. Every Democratic senator but Manchin sponsored S1. Instead, Manchin has offered support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which essentially corrects Justice John Roberts’ erroneous assumption that because the states covered by the Voting Rights Act (VRA) had eliminated most racially discriminatory aspects of voting, the VRA protections were no longer necessary. Within hours of that Supreme Court decision Republicans in many southern states went about overturning those protections, proving that Roberts’ assessment was naïve. It is a good bill, but it is limited to correcting Roberts’ mistake.
Manchin offered a compromise version of the John Lewis bill in hopes of attracting Republican support. He addressed their concerns about election security (requiring a photo ID, not allowing same day registration or no excuse absentee voting). Stacy Abrams, the progressive activist who helped the Democrats win Georgia, surprisingly expressed support for the compromise. The Republicans rejected that compromise, because for them, the real thing they are concerned about is not election security, but retaining power by making it more difficult for potential Democratic voters to vote.
Manchin has claimed that since no Republican senators support S1, it is partisan legislation, and he won’t support its partisan passage. While technically this is true, the Republicans have made it quite clear that they are willing to pass partisan legislation to make voting more difficult. So for Manchin the choice is not one between bipartisan legislation or a partisan Democratic alternative, but rather between a partisan Republican agenda, enacted at the state level to restrict the ability of Democratic-leaning groups to vote, or a Democratic agenda that makes it easier for everyone to vote.
Americans admire independent thinking, but we also admire members of a team who are willing to selflessly subvert their interests to those of the larger group. Manchin is a Democrat representing West Virginia, a state that Donald Trump won by 39 points. But while many West Virginia voters identify with Trump, majorities actually support many of the elements of S1. So in spite of West Virginia being a red state, Manchin’s refusal to support S1 is actually based on his own beliefs, not those of his constituents.
For a democracy to function, it has to reflect the will of the people. Krysten Sinema, the other Democratic senator playing hard to get, has argued that the filibuster prevents the government from changing directions frequently based on slim electoral victories. Requiring a supermajority (as the filibuster does) addresses that issue. But it creates two larger problems. The major problem is that when a majority works hard to win an election, and then the party elected cannot govern, people lose faith in the entire system (they justifiably ask, “what’s the point of voting when elections don’t change anything?”). And because Congress has become dysfunctional, presidents now use executive orders to enact their agenda, which is a much less open process than congressional legislation, and these are even more easily reversed when the presidency changes hands. So it’s the worst of both worlds. Besides, the American political system already has more “veto points” than most democracies; to get something done, it must pass both houses of Congress, the president and survive scrutiny from the Supreme Court. Parties being able to enact their agenda too easily is not the problem; dysfunction is.
Mitch McConnell has publicly declared that the Republican goal is to prevent the Biden administration from enacting its agenda. In trying to work in a bipartisan manner to create a commission to investigate the invasion of the Capitol on Jan. 6, the Democrats gave the Republican negotiator everything he asked for. McConnell, who had sent him to negotiate, then told his fellow Republicans that they should vote against the commission as a personal favor to him. Those are not the actions of a party interested in bipartisanship.
It is admirable that Manchin wants to work across the aisle, and there are possible compromises available (removing some provisions of S1, making 40 senators filibuster in person, e.g.). Biden and the Democrats have given him the opportunity to work this out, but at some point, as Democrats learned from their experience with Obamacare, you have to recognize that you’re being played. If Manchin can find a compromise that will allow 10 Republicans to support S1 without losing Democratic support, he will have earned his spot in history. Failing that, he should not let an unrealistic personal preference undermine the ability of the government to function for a decade. He needs to look beyond his parochial interests and consider the big picture. Manchin has two options: He can either retain the filibuster and nix S1 to help the Republicans stifle Biden’s agenda, or reverse his position and help the Democrats enact the agenda they were elected on.
Kent James has a doctorate in History and Policy from Carnegie Mellon University and is an adjunct in the History Department at Washington & Jefferson College.