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Getting to Yes on Voting Rights

Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the possible.
July 7, 2021
Getting to Yes on Voting Rights
Demonstrators hold up a sign as they participate in the Moral March on Manchin and McConnell, a rally held by the Poor Peoples Campaign, calling on them to eliminate the legislative filibuster and pass the "For The People" voting rights bill, outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Anyone familiar with the art of negotiation knows that success is unlikely unless there’s at least some compromise. Given the current tensions around voting and race within our democracy, Congress will have to make at least some concessions on H.R. 1. They should embrace Joe Manchin’s alternative.

And soon.

With the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Brnovich further whittling the efficacy of the Voting Rights Act—after it had already done so in Shelby County—there’s no time for delay. The courts, particularly our highest one, are playing hard and fast with rights that had been firmly secured over 50 years ago. Unless we pass legislation now to stop the trend, the right to vote will depend not on whether one is a citizen, but on one’s state of residence.

As chairman of the non-partisan U.S. Vote Foundation, I want to see the bold and expansive voting reforms embodied in the For the People Act. However, I also appreciate that some of our most important advances have not come all at once, but in a piecemeal fashion, where each piece builds on what came before.

Consider the history of reforming our laws to ensure voter accessibility for service members based away from their voting residences. Despite their role in protecting our democracy, it took us decades to refine the law so that our military could reliably cast a ballot whether on base in Okaloosa, Florida or Kabul, Afghanistan. What started with the Soldier Voting Act in 1942 took several rounds of reform to become what is now the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act—a pretty darn good piece of federal voting legislation that has withstood the test of time.

To be sure, we shouldn’t have to wait decades to fully protect the right to vote for any American. That lesson should have been learned with passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and, then again, with that of the Voting Rights Act.

As we say at U.S. Vote Foundation, “Every Citizen is a Voter.” And this is especially true today: The country’s history of denying the right to vote to African Americans, among others, serves as the backdrop to a growing number of state initiatives that would limit ballot access or even upend the integrity of how elections are conducted. Voters are on the line and so are the elections themselves. This week marks the six month anniversary of the January 6 insurrection. We are living in dangerous times. And that’s precisely why we need enactment of strong reform now, even if it doesn’t include every reform we’d like to eventually see.

Senator Manchin’s election-reform proposal provides the necessary building blocks that can serve as the foundation of an ongoing effort to protect voting rights. Indeed, Manchin’s proposal includes reforms that the voting rights community has prioritized for years: Early voting for all, an end to partisan gerrymandering, implementation of automatic voter registration at DMVs, and turning Election Day into a national holiday.

It’s a good start for national reform.

Some voting rights advocates may be nervous about Manchin’s “soft ID” provision. That’s because photo ID laws, as we’ve seen over the past decade, have often been used with the pernicious intent of disenfranchising voters of color, youth, and those with disabilities. Voter ID laws are frequently—and sometimes suddenly—changed by states, leaving voters to cope with unforeseen issues that only become obvious when it’s time to vote.

Using voter ID as a tool to disenfranchise voters is wrong and should be stopped.

But it’s important to differentiate between a repressively strict voter ID process and a common-sense ID process that voters can successfully navigate. Common-sense voter ID requirements, as our foundation’s 2020 post-election research showed, are popular with voters. What voters don’t want are ID provisions that aim to disenfranchise citizens.

So what we need with voter ID is to make laws consistent across states, demanding no more than what the Help America Vote Act of 2002 already requires of all first-time voters—namely, utility bills and the like. Then with clear and uniform standards, citizens can plan and act accordingly.

We can protect the integrity of elections at the same time that we protect voter access.

Compromises are by their nature difficult to reach. But instead of considering the negotiations on the For the People Act as a loss, let’s look at Manchin’s bill as a good start and build on it.

Republicans have made the nonsensical argument that Manchin’s bill is the Stacey Abrams substitute. But by showing support for the efforts of Senator Manchin, Ms. Abrams is trying to help the country get to yes. A “Stacey Abrams substitute” is a good thing for anyone who values compromise in the service of getting things done for America. Only a party opposed to any reform would demonize this good-faith compromise.

Let’s learn from Manchin’s example and refocus our strategy on compromise so that we can move Congress forward on this important piece of voting legislation. To scrap the whole thing at this point, particularly when the courts have repeatedly diminished the strongest law we have, would be a defeat for democracy. Passing some form of the For the People Act, in addition to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, is the only way to preserve the right to vote for every American in our current climate.

Perhaps at a different moment in our history, or some future point when polarization doesn’t leave this country’s democracy on the brink, we’ll work on passing legislation that garners large majorities. But for today, we must do what’s needed to safeguard the country by passing crucial reform protecting the fundamental practices that ensure democracy’s continuity.

Which brings us back to Senator Manchin and the inordinate power he holds to move this and other reforms forward. As Manchin himself acknowledges, “we now are witnessing that the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized.” He has the power to help change that.

Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the possible. Democracy demands as much.

Michael S. Steele

Michael S. Steele is chairman of the U.S. Vote Foundation and the former Lt. Governor of Maryland. He is also on the advisory board of Republicans for Voting Rights.