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Joe Manchin's focus on West Virginia could doom voting rights

To placate his voters, Manchin doesn't support H.R. 1 — but his Plan B for saving democracy can't work.
Photo illustration: Senator Joe Manchin stands in an elevator whose doors have the engraving of the West Viriginia state flag.
Joe Manchin is putting West Virginia over America — it'll end badly for both.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

I believe Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., when he says he believes in the institutions and traditions of the Senate. I believe him when he says he wants to find common ground with the Republicans he works with in the Senate chamber each day.

But I also believe Manchin operates with an eye firmly on West Virginia and its people, not the country as a whole. It's an increasingly antiquated view that he brandishes in defense of an increasingly antiquated chamber. His myopia toward the needs of the United States versus his home state fuels his unwillingness to act in defense of democracy as we know it. As a result, Manchin's love of a state born over 150 years ago during a struggle to preserve the Union could, in the end, be the Union's ruin.

That's not how Manchin sees it, though, as he explained Sunday in an op-ed announcing that he opposes the For the People Act. Manchin is the only member of the 50-senator Democratic caucus that is against the election overhaul bill, because, as he wrote, "partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy."

He added that he won't vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster to pass any voting rights laws; instead, he will "fight to represent the people of West Virginia, to seek bipartisan compromise no matter how difficult and to develop the political bonds that end divisions and help unite the country we love."

I'm forced to set aside the poor writing and belabored logic, because Manchin's piece wasn't written for me or anyone in the political class outside West Virginia. It's written for a local audience, which is why it was placed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, his state's largest newspaper, and not The New York Times or The Washington Post.

Manchin’s love of a state born over 150 years ago out of a struggle to preserve the Union could, in the end, be the ruin of it.

"I have always said, 'If I can't go home and explain it, I can't vote for it,'" Manchin wrote. "And I cannot explain strictly partisan election reform or blowing up the Senate rules to expedite one party's agenda." Nor does he even really try. His essay doesn't delve into the details of the For the People Act — there's no "why" that even explains the parts that he's against. He's content to list its faults as being a "more than 800-page bill" that "has garnered zero Republican support."

Two paradoxes are inherent in Manchin's thinking. First and foremost: Of course there's no Republican support for a bill that would curtail attempts by states' Republican-led legislatures to disenfranchise voters! Why would there be?!

Second, and more important for this essay, as a representative of his state and its voters, Manchin finds it necessary to prove he isn't beholden to the national Democratic Party's agenda over the needs of West Virginians. But in protecting his constituents' interests as he defines them, he leaves them vulnerable to the machinations that Republicans have set into motion across the country.

But here’s the real kicker: Unless the senator’s office has some private polling that they’d like to share, Manchin’s assumptions about what West Virginians want are wrong. According to a poll released last month — commissioned by End Citizens United and Let America Vote Action Fund and conducted by Global Strategy Group and ALG Research — the For the People Act is wildly popular among likely voters in West Virginia. Like “76 percent of Republicans are in favor” levels of popularity, to say nothing of the 79 percent of independents and 81 percent of Democrats.

Manchin, who in his op-ed touts his past role as West Virginia's secretary of state, has to know the GOP-controlled Legislature has moved to edit the state's election laws after the 2020 campaign. While not as egregious as some states' revisions, Senate Bill 565 would still make voting more difficult by: swapping the state's opt-out system for automatic voter registration at the DMV for an opt-in system, pushing back the deadline to request absentee ballots and permitting easier and more frequent purges of voter rolls.

The bill didn't manage to pass the House of Delegates before the Legislature adjourned for the year — but it could come back in next year's session or a special session before then. And it could be brought more in line with the rest of the voting restriction bills introduced in states like Georgia and Texas.

He is a throwback to an age when senators placed a higher value on the soil of their home states than the rest of the country combined.

Manchin's defense would likely be that he does support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would revitalize landmark legislation that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013. What he fails to consider, though, is that even the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has become anathema to most of the GOP. He says he's working with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to gain support — but that doesn't get you to the 10 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

The Senate that Manchin so loves is a monument to the state as a polity, existing as it did in the late 18th century, semi-independent from the federal government. The compromise that gave rise to the chamber cemented the role of the individual states as equal inside the union at the highest level, unrepresentative of their sizes or populations.

That division and separation from the crude, raw democracy of the House of Representatives is why the Senate is where the fight over "states' rights" has most often played out. And yet, consider how rarely you hear about the larger, more liberal states that champion that concept and the 10th Amendment to defend their own legislating. No, it's the language of the South, of John C. Calhoun and of Richard Russell, the father and the greatest champion of the filibuster, respectively.

Manchin is no white supremacist. He doesn't want to see the federal government powerless in the face of states' violations of their citizens' rights. But he is a throwback to an age when senators placed a higher value on the soil of their home states than the rest of the country combined. And at a time when the Republican Party's unwritten platform is focused on changing election laws to allow GOP candidates to win without getting the most votes, that's a line of thinking that Democratic leadership can't accept.

I think Manchin still has much more in common with the Democrats than the Republicans. I also think he's going to be confronted with a very harsh reality in the near future, that all of his pleas and prayers will not protect the country from the anti-democratic tear the GOP has embarked on. And, I would point out to the senator, that includes his beloved West Virginia.CORRECTION (June 8, 2021, 12:10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when West Virginia was admitted into the Union. It was over 150 years ago, in 1863, not over 200 years ago.