Don’t Let This Voting-Rights Compromise Go to Waste

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What’s one to make of the For the People Act, which had been stuck in the U.S. Senate for months and has now been killed by filibustering Republicans?

Ostensibly a voting-rights bill, the measure included a large number of far-reaching changes to the broader American electoral system. Many Democrats proclaimed it their top priority. Some characterized it as the last line of defense against “Jim Crow 2.”

An inconvenient truth is that the For the People Act never stood any chance of passage in its proposed form — not merely because of Republican intransigence, but because even many Democrats didn’t support elements of it. In addition to valuable commonsense electoral reforms, it included an outlandish wish list of progressive desires. It might as well have been designed to fail.

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin therefore deserves credit for trying to come up with a plausible compromise. Among other liberal priorities, his plan would still make Election Day a public holiday, allow 15 days of early voting in federal elections and include the bulk of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which restores parts of the Voting Rights Act previously struck down by the Supreme Court as overreaches of federal power. Even better, it would place limits on gerrymandering and mandate automatic voter registration, a measure that could significantly boost turnout across the board.

But Manchin’s proposal offered significant concessions as well. It would strip out some of the original bill’s most controversial ideas, including public campaign financing, re-enfranchisement of ex-prisoners and universal no-excuse absentee voting. More notably, it would establish a national voter-ID requirement, an idea that has broad public support — particularly among people of color. Stacey Abrams, the voting-rights advocate, initially came out in support of the plan, a move that could allay objections from some progressives.

Unfortunately, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed Manchin’s plan out of hand. That will make it harder to summon the necessary Republican support. And many Democrats will be content with that outcome, also regarding any kind of compromise as betrayal. Following an all-too-familiar pattern, many lawmakers in both parties prefer standoff, paralysis and heightened partisan passion to sensible incremental progress.

No neutral observer would say that America’s system of state-run federal elections is without flaw. Many of its defects and anachronisms are both obvious and maddening. Former President Donald Trump made a bad situation very much worse by casting doubt on the system’s basic integrity, inviting Republican-controlled legislatures to impose unwarranted new restrictions on voters. (One such effort, in Georgia, is now the subject of a lawsuit from the Justice Department.)

In such a climate, national legislation to restore confidence in the system is undoubtedly needed. Both sides say they’re trying to do just that, but neither is being entirely honest with voters. The American system requires compromise and concession. Without these, it breaks down. Manchin’s plan isn’t perfect, but it’s progress. If it fails, the system as a whole has failed — and on a matter of fundamental importance for American democracy.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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