On Voting Rights, Democrats Need to Learn to Speak Republican

Last week, Democrats’ latest attempt at voting rights legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act, failed its first vote. The Freedom to Vote Act was Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) bid for a voting rights compromise after he rejected the ill-fated For the People Act (also known as H.R. 1). Manchin’s hesitation was reasonable — H.R. 1 would have created some voting rights protections, but its scope was so expansive that it was virtually dead on arrival in the Senate. H.R. 1 couldn’t even garner the support of all 50 Democratic senators, let alone attract Republican support.

Manchin’s plan is a vast improvement over H.R. 1. It would have created a genuine path to protecting voting rights and securing American elections. It would have given Republicans a commonsense mechanism for creating smart voter identification guidelines, protected against election subversion and established basic vote-by-mail standards to ensure ballot access.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called the bill a “naked power grab” in an “obsessive quest to rewrite election law and rig the game.” He also said the bill would have granted Democrats “vast and unprecedented partisan power to micromanage elections across America.”

But the reality is that Manchin’s compromise should have attracted Republican support strictly on the policy merits. After all, Manchin is a pragmatist from a ruby red state with a long record of bipartisanship.

Manchin’s bill also left Republicans with a number of opportunities for negotiation. They could have let the Democrats keep the core voting protections while asking to dump the campaign finance provisions. In short: The Manchin bill was tailor-made to attract at least the interest, if not the support, of Republicans who are open to compromise on protecting voting rights.

Instead, Senate Republicans ignored the major concessions Manchin had extracted from Democrats and refused to even let the bill advance to the floor for debate.

Republicans must understand the need to act. Across the country, state legislatures have used so-called election integrity measures to meddle in nonpartisan elections. Some have even passed legislation that empowers politicians to subvert election results. In March, the Iowa state legislature enacted an elections bill that expands the authority of the state elections commissioner over local officials in the leadup to an election. One Arizona politician introduced a bill that would have allowed the legislature to throw out presidential election results and certify a victor of its choosing.

It’s time Republicans recognize these actions for what they are: partisan failsafes for challenging election results. Democrats, on the other hand, need to rethink their strategy.

First, they should be clear-eyed about what they are up against. There may not even be 10 Republicans who are willing to negotiate in good faith. But Democrats must be pragmatic and give themselves every chance at success. That means resisting the temptation to get behind ambitious bills that invite unfavorable legal challenges or embrace Republican third rails by gutting voter ID laws.

Instead, Democrats should focus on the basics, like mail-in voting standards and protections for poll workers and against partisan subversion. And they should use Manchin’s strong voter ID proposal — which would allow ID substitutes like gun licenses in states that already have voter ID laws — to bring Republicans to the table. Democrats could even return to Manchin’s original position on voter ID: a national voter ID mandate that allows many reasonable alternatives.

Moderate Republicans like Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have an opportunity to soften extreme Republican impulses and rein in expansive Democratic wish lists. Given Romney’s principled leadership and Murkowski’s interest in election reform, they should be natural allies for Democrats.

The Manchin bill ultimately failed for two main reasons: 1.) Democrats cannot reach a consensus on voting rights that can avoid Republican nonstarters, and 2.) Republicans do not feel a sense of urgency around renewed challenges to voting rights. Democrats have no choice but to come to a position that doesn’t alienate good-faith Republicans. While it may not be everything progressives desire, something is better than nothing. And if they still cannot find 10 Republicans to advance a bill, that should send a clear message about the GOP’s stance on secure and fair elections.


Olivia Troye is director of Republicans for Voting Rights and a former career intelligence professional who served as Vice President Mike Pence’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.

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