For the better part of the last year, many in the Senate Democratic conference set out to convince Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia of two things: Republicans' voter-suppression efforts represent a serious crisis; and Congress has a responsibility to do whatever is necessary to protect voting rights through federal legislation.
In recent weeks, it's been clear that the conservative Democrat is unmoved on the latter point. Manchin reiterated last week that he believes the Senate's filibuster rules must be protected, regardless of the consequences. But during a brief Q&A with reporters on Capitol Hill yesterday, the senator also suggested he's not even convinced that there's a real problem in need of a solution.
A reporter specifically asked about concerns that some Americans will not be able to cast ballots in the fall. Manchin responded:
"The laws are there, and the rules are there, and basically the government, the government will stand behind them and give them the right to vote. We have that. The things they're talking about now are in court. Marc Elias has an awful lot of that in court. The courts have struck down, like in Ohio, they struck down gerrymandering. Things are happening, okay? We act we are going to obstruct people from voting; that is not going to happen."
Let's unpack this, because the senator is wrong in important ways.
First, it's true that Marc Elias is awfully busy with litigation intended to protect voting rights, but it's also true that Elias is a lawyer in private practice. He's not part of "the government," and it's not at all clear whether his efforts to protect the franchise through litigation will succeed.
Second, it's true that Ohio's ridiculously gerrymandered district map was narrowly rejected by a state Supreme Court, but that's because voters in the Buckeye State approved a constitutional amendment to prevent such abuses. Most states don't have similar measures, making Ohio more of an outlier and less of an example of systemic progress at the national level. (Also note, three of the state Supreme Court's seven justices were prepared to endorse the map anyway.)
Third, the West Virginian's insistence that everything will be fine, and no one will be blocked from voting, is at odds with all available evidence. Just last year, Republicans in 19 states deliberately made it more difficult for voters to participate in their own democracy, and new efforts are already underway in 2022.
But it was Manchin's confidence that "the government" will protect the right to vote — even as state governments put new hurdles between voters and their own democracy — that stood out.
Part of "the government," of course, is the United States Congress, of which the senator is obviously a part. This is an institution that could take new steps to protect voting rights, though Manchin — among others — is standing in the way of such progress.
But it's possible that the conservative Democrat was referring to the Justice Department and federal law enforcement, which could also represent "government" efforts to protect Americans' access to ballot boxes. Look at that quote again: "The laws are there, and the rules are there, and basically the government, the government will stand behind them and give them the right to vote. We have that."
I wonder if Manchin might benefit from a chat with Attorney General Merrick Garland.
A couple of weeks ago, the nation's chief law enforcement official delivered a memorable speech, which largely focused on the Jan. 6 attack, but which also focused attention on voting rights.
"Since [the Supreme Court's decisions on the Voting Rights Act], there has been a dramatic increase in legislative enactments that make it harder for millions of eligible voters to vote and to elect representatives of their own choosing," Garland explained.
"Those enactments range from: practices and procedures that make voting more difficult; to redistricting maps drawn to disadvantage both minorities and citizens of opposing political parties; to abnormal post-election audits that put the integrity of the voting process at risk; to changes in voting administration meant to diminish the authority of locally elected or nonpartisan election administrators. Some have even suggested permitting state legislators to set aside the choice of the voters themselves.
"As I noted in an address to the Civil Rights Division last June, many of those enactments have been justified by unfounded claims of material vote fraud in the 2020 election. Those claims, which have corroded people's faith in the legitimacy of our elections, have been repeatedly refuted by the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of both the last administration and this one, as well as by every court — federal and state — that has considered them.
"The Department of Justice will continue to do all it can to protect voting rights with the enforcement powers we have. It is essential that Congress act to give the department the powers we need to ensure that every eligible voter can cast a vote that counts."
Once more for emphasis: "It is essential that Congress act to give the department the powers we need to ensure that every eligible voter can cast a vote that counts."
Why is it, exactly, that Manchin believes that the attorney general, congressional Democrats, and voting-rights advocates are wrong?