Do Democrats Have a Realistic Path Forward on Their Voting Bills?

As Republicans across the country restrict voting and federal legislation stalls in Congress, the left’s eyes are on Joe Manchin.

By Giovanni Russonello

The Senate on Tuesday took up the For the People Act, a sweeping bill to overhaul the country’s election system, the first step in what will probably be a long and winding legislative process. Democrats are faced with not only the all-out resistance of Republicans, but also the hesitation of their own 50th vote, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the lone Democrat in the chamber who hasn’t signed on as a sponsor of the bill.

The elections package, which was the subject of a combative back-and-forth in the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday, is more than a voting rights bill. You can think of it as a legislative Leviathan, designed by Democrats to attack what they see as a wide range of flaws in the country’s electoral politics in a single swoop.

But their inability to unify their own caucus around the bill — let alone to map out a path to the finish line in the face of unified Republican opposition — appears to be setting up a showdown within the party, posing a crucial test of Mr. Manchin’s so-far granite commitment to keeping the filibuster in place.

For President Biden and his party, the bill risks becoming one of the greatest disappointments of their time in power. It could be a forever what-if as Democrats strain to prevent Republicans from deepening their structural advantages up and down the country’s political system, in part by limiting who has access to the ballot.

The For the People Act contains provisions to protect voting rights, rein in big money’s role in politics, strengthen enforcement of existing election laws and limit gerrymandering. Democratic leaders have said that the bill is essential to protecting the future of democracy — particularly at a moment when Republican-led state legislatures are passing voting restrictions at a higher rate than any moment since the Jim Crow era.

At nearly 900 pages, the legislation’s enormousness may be both its greatest asset and a source of vulnerability.

“Because it’s tackling these several priorities at the same time, it has a much broader base of support from many different communities of stakeholders,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice. “I’d say that politically, the fact that it addresses more than one crisis is a strength.”

But the bill’s size leaves a lot of exposed surface area for opponents to attack, and the proceedings in the Senate on Tuesday pointed to a hard road ahead. Republican senators spent the afternoon tossing darts at the bill in the form of amendments and attacking it as a sign of Democratic overreach.

“The Democratic Party, on its own, wants to rewrite the ground rules of American politics for their benefit,” Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said on the floor, arguing flatly that “our democracy is not in crisis.”

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