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As Schumer readies vote, does the Freedom to Vote Act have a chance?

The question isn't whether the Senate Democrats' Freedom to Vote Act is good. The question is whether this good bill can pass the Senate next week.
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A voter drops an election ballot off at the Pitkin County Administration box in Aspen, Colorado, on Nov. 6, 2018.Anna Stonehouse / The Aspen Times via AP

Two months ago, as senators prepared to depart Capitol Hill for their August break, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made a commitment on voting rights legislation. As we've discussed, the For the People Act couldn't muster enough support, but the New York Democrat said a group of senators was negotiating the terms of a new, narrowly focused compromise measure, which the chamber would consider upon senators' return.

Two months later, as NBC News reported this morning, Schumer is effectively calling the question.

The Senate will hold a procedural vote next week on voting legislation, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has announced. In a letter to his caucus Thursday, the New York Democrat said that he plans to set up the procedural vote on the Freedom to Vote Act for next Wednesday.

In his written letter, the majority leader emphasized that the legislation has the backing of every member of the Senate Democratic conference, before adding that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin "has been engaged in conversations with our Republicans colleagues in hopes of advancing solutions on a bipartisan basis to ensure all Americans have their voice heard in our democracy."

Schumer added, "We cannot allow conservative-controlled states to double down on their regressive and subversive voting bills. The Freedom to Vote Act is the legislation that will right the ship of our democracy and establish common sense national standards to give fair access to our democracy to all Americans."

In terms of the merits, the legislation has a lot going for it. Circling back to our earlier coverage, the Freedom to Vote Act has three parts. The first focuses on voter access and election administration, and it includes provisions that would create automatic voter registration at a national level, make Election Day a national holiday, and establish floors states could not fall below on early voting, same-day registration, mail voting and drop boxes. This section also sets a national standard for voter-ID laws, intended to address Republican demands.

The second part focuses on election integrity, and it includes provisions to insulate election officials from partisan interference, establishes cybersecurity standards, and with the 2016 race in mind, "creates a reporting requirement for federal campaigns to disclose certain foreign contacts."

The final part focuses on civic participation and, among other things, aims to end partisan gerrymandering.

But as is often the case on Capitol Hill, the question isn't whether the bill is good, it's whether the bill can pass.

Republican leaders have already rejected the compromise offer, but Manchin has spent weeks trying to get GOP support for the measure anyway. Asked last month what his plan is to get the bill passed, the conservative Democrat replied, "It's to get 10 Republicans."

Or put another way, the future of our democracy may very well hinge on whether Manchin voluntarily gives Republican opponents of voting rights veto power over voting rights legislation. What could possibly go wrong?

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who's been directly involved with the legislative talks, told Talking Points Memo yesterday that a handful of GOP senators have been willing to engage in discussions about the bill. Warnock added that he considers the Republicans' ideas "inadequate," but he's prepared to have the policy discussion anyway.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester added that there are "about five or six" Republicans who've expressed at least some interest in being constructive on the issue, and the Montanan wants to bring some of their proposals to the floor in the hopes of moving the process forward.

But the math remains stubborn: Even if five or six GOP senators considered the possibility of backing a compromise bill — a far-fetched scenario, to be sure — the legislation would still die at the hands of a Republican filibuster.

All of which brings us to a familiar point. The authors of the Freedom to Vote Act invested months of work into the bill, well aware of the legislative arithmetic. Would they spend all of this time and energy on an important bill that was doomed from the outset?

If — or more realistically, when — 60 votes fail to materialize, attention will turn to an obvious solution: Voting rights advocates, on Capitol Hill and off, want Senate Democrats to create an exception to the institution's filibuster rules, allowing members to rescue democracy by simply passing a worthwhile bill by majority rule.

In July, Virginia's Mark Warner, a moderate Senate Democrat, publicly endorsed just such a carve-out, saying Americans' voting rights are so fundamentally important to our system of government, this is "the only area" in which he'd support an exception to the chamber's existing filibuster rules.

Will Democratic senators such as Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema agree? Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norm Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently made the case in a Washington Post opinion piece that the stakes are so high that every Democratic senator will ultimately do the responsible thing.

Proponents of democracy have reason to hope they're right. We'll find out next week.