Democrats Can’t Say Joe Manchin Didn’t Warn Them

Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, is running out of ways to say that he is not going to get rid of the filibuster.

“I don’t know what you all don’t understand about this,” he told reporters recently. “You ask the same question every day.” He’s going to keep getting pestered.

A lot of Democrats, and evidently reporters, believe the filibuster has to go so that U.S. voting laws can be overhauled. Nothing less than democracy is at stake, they think.

It isn’t, and Manchin should stand firm.

The “voter suppression” Democrats cite is like the “voter fraud” Republicans complain about: Both sometimes happen, both are regrettable departures from democratic ideals, and both are rare.

Republicans in state legislatures have advanced some objectionable proposals: In Georgia and Texas, they considered limits on early voting on Sundays that had no rationale other than to keep Democratic vote totals down. Both proposals got justifiable criticism, and the bills were changed.

Press coverage and Democratic rhetoric have often given the mistaken impression that there is an onslaught of similar Republican legislation in the states. Their evidence includes the number of state bills that the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive group, classifies as restrictive of voting rights — a tally that counts many bills that it also classifies as liberalizing voter access, and that ignores how many bills get introduced without ever going anywhere.

Most of these proposals are more defensible than the Sunday limits. Tightened requirements for voter identification have been a flashpoint of these debates, but they do not appear to suppress votes for any demographic group. Some of the bills are merely a partial reversal of pandemic-inspired changes to voting procedures, but are often described without that context.

The critics of most of these measures have a stronger case when it comes to questioning the motives for such efforts rather than their merits. Those motives are mixed.

A lot of Republicans have, at least in the back of their minds, the idea that low turnout benefits their party. This is both anti-democratic as a reason for legislation and increasingly mistaken as a matter of political reality. Some legislators either believe former President Donald Trump’s false claims about rampant voter fraud in the last election or are willing to pander to voters who do.

They ought to tell the truth about those claims; but that doesn’t mean they should vote against these bills. A few people have been able to walk a straight line through this morass.

Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, stood up against his party by debunking Trump’s untruths about how the election went in his state, then stood up against the Democrats’ misrepresentations of the state’s new election law, which he largely favored.

The worst thing about Republicans’ voting bills in the states is their tendency to diminish public confidence in an election system that is working pretty well. They diminish that confidence both because some Republicans, in promoting them, are exaggerating the need for reforms, and because some Democratic voters, watching party-line votes to change procedures, understandably fear the worst.

It would be much worse to do the same thing at the national level. For starters, many provisions in the Democrats’ voting bill, the For the People Act, are unconstitutional. Courts already found one of them, a regulation of online political ads, to be unconstitutional when Maryland tried it.

Manchin thinks the bill is too broad and too partisan. Those aren’t its only problems: It’s also a potential administrative nightmare for state election officials. But he is correct on both counts.

The bill is a laundry list of progressive wishes that often bear little relation to the “voting rights” label affixed to it. Taxpayer funding of campaigns and a code of ethics for the Supreme Court, both in the bill, have nothing to do with the ease of voting. And the provisions that actually deal with voting are also too sweeping: There is no reason that every state should be forced to discard voter-ID laws.

But Manchin has put his finger on what would be wrong with passing even a slimmed-down version of the bill. “How in the world could you, with the tension we have right now, allow a voting bill to restructure the voting of America on a partisan line?” he asked in April.

Trust in the system, already dangerously low, would fall further. And the corrosive effect of too much loose talk about voter fraud and suppression would be compounded if the Senate first slashed away at the rights of political minorities so it could change election laws. If progressives keep ignoring what Manchin is saying, he should ignore their howls of frustration.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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