Joe Manchin, reporters
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) talks with reporters in the Dirksen Building on June 24, 2021. Photo credit: © Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly via ZUMA Press

As the Senate struggles over voting rights laws, a West Virginia legislator takes center stage. The Democrats’ agenda lives and dies by Joe Manchin (D).

Joe Manchin has a lot of power.

The West Virginia legislator is one of 50 Democratic senators, but, as a representative of a small, conservative state, he has no problem breaking rank with his party. And with the Senate split evenly along party lines, this means the fate of the Biden administration’s initiatives often rests in his hands alone.

Which means the Democrats have to please him to pass their agenda. Which means he can hold out for whatever he wants. Which he does.

He’s proven this, yet again, in his last-minute switch to a “yes” vote to bring the For the People Act, passed by the House as HR 1 and advancing in the Senate as S 1, to the floor for debate. Manchin spent months refusing to cooperate with his own party on the bill, which is intended to protect voting rights by fighting against partisan gerrymandering and help keep money out of politics. He even penned an op-ed titled “Why I’m Voting Against the For the People Act” in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, a newspaper in his home state.

His stated reason for refusal had been a lack of Republican support for the bill, as he said he believes decisions regarding elections should be made with both parties on board. Fellow Democrats were confused since the bill matched one that Manchin co-sponsored previously, with even more concessions to Republicans drawn in.

Manchin’s sudden reversal to support the bill came after months of intense negotiations that culminated over the weekend. 

“Over the past month, I have worked to eliminate the far reaching provisions of S.1, the For the People Act — which I do not support,” Manchin said in a statement. “I’ve found common ground with my Democratic colleagues on a new version of the bill that ensures our elections are fair, accessible and secure.”

His amendment would mandate voter identification and its substitutes, though most Democrats are against voter ID laws. His changes would do away with no-excuse absentee voting, but require states to allow both early and mail-in voting. He also would require the disclosure of any spending over $10,000 and ban partisan gerrymandering, which is a key Democratic goal as the country redraws political district maps based on the census. Manchin’s proposed changes were still under negotiation with his fellow Democrats as of Tuesday, said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D).

And his amendment would have been the first to be debated if the bill would have been brought forward.

But it won’t be brought forward. The Republicans are silently filibustering, meaning, without saying a word or even being present, they are prohibiting the bill from reaching the floor for debate at all. To get that debate started, the Democrats need 60 votes. They now have the 50 Democrats. So it’s up to Manchin, the champion of bipartisanship, to bring along 10 Republicans, a feat that seems nearly impossible. Right now, Manchin has only Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska willing to consider voting rights legislation.

“Unfortunately, my Republican colleagues refused to allow debate of this legislation despite the reasonable changes made to focus the bill on the core issues facing our democracy,” Manchin said in a statement.

Democrats hope this hard-line Republican stance will ultimately convince Manchin to abandon his support for the filibuster rules.

The battle over the filibuster likely will happen in late July, if Republicans continue to block the new For the People Act.

Democrats say the bill is necessary to stem the tide of voting restrictions being enacted at the state level, from Georgia to Kansas to Florida to Arkansas and more. More than 360 restrictive voting bills are making their way through state governments this year.

This federal legislation would regulate equity in voting, making it easier for people to register to vote and to cast their ballots — through voting expansion and same-day voter registration. It takes into account people’s work schedules and works to eliminate voting bias against people of color. Republicans contend that the sweeping measures circumvent state authority.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said it was a “transparently partisan plan to tilt every election in America permanently” in the Democrats’ favor. Of course, this is exactly what Democrats say about the state-level Republican initiatives.

Right before the Senate voted, Klobuchar said from the floor that “this is not the end of the line, this is only the beginning” and promised a series of hearings on voter suppression bills in the various states, as well.

It remains to be seen whether any of this will go through, but it’s a good bet that it’s all in Manchin’s hands.


  • Darlena Cunha

    Darlena Cunha is the election integrity program manager for WhoWhatWhy. She is also a journalism professor at the University of Florida and contributes to publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic.

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