Steven V. Roberts: What will Manchin do?

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 24, 2021

OK, Joe, it’s time to get serious. Are you really ready to protect our political system or not?

Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, has often cast himself as a strong defender of voting rights. Writing in the Charleston Gazette-Mail last June, he insisted, “The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy, and protecting that right should not be about party or politics.”

Now he has helped craft a reasonable compromise bill that would go a long way toward thwarting the most egregious assaults on voting rights launched by Republican legislators around the country. As The Washington Post summarized its contents, “the act would ensure access to the ballot box, promote impartial vote-counting and limit partisan gerrymandering.”

Manchin told ABC, “I’m anxious to go talk to all my Republican friends” about joining his effort. He’s right that in an ideal world, protecting “access to the ballot box” should be done on a bipartisan basis. He’s also correct that the Senate filibuster rule, which requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass many measures, often protects the rights of the minority party and should not be abrogated easily.

But this is not an ideal world. Far from it. Republican leaders adamantly resist imposing any federal rules on state and local elections. And since the Senate is split 50-50 between the parties, Manchin has embarked on a futile mission. He cannot possibly attract 10 Republicans to back his measure and overcome a filibuster.

So that leaves him with a plain and painful choice: Vote to amend the filibuster rule, facilitating passage of the voting rights bill on a party-line vote, or allow Republicans to block the measure and continue trashing the fundamental freedom Manchin says he cares so much about.

Frankly, don’t expect Manchin to show the courage of his convictions. He’s strongly defended the filibuster in the past, and represents a state that Donald Trump won by almost 40 points. But the stakes are high, and the threat to democracy is real.

The Brennan Center for Justice reports that in the first six months of 2021, at least 18 states enacted 30 laws that restrict access to the ballot box, and in recent days, Texas has passed possibly the most draconian voter-suppression laws of any state.

“These laws,” adds the center, “make mail voting and early voting more difficult, impose harsher voter ID requirements, and make faulty voter purges more likely.” And they are motivated “in large part … by false and often racist allegations about voter fraud.”

Those allegations continue to be aggravated and amplified by Trump, who still insists — with absolutely no evidence — that the 2020 election was stolen from him. And his Big Lie, no matter how detached from reality, continues to be swallowed by his hard-core followers.

A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 66% of Republicans — and 29% of all voters — insist that “the election was rigged and stolen from Trump.”

That. Is. Not. True.

In their new book “Peril,” Bob Woodward and Robert Costa describe how Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani tried to convince Sen. Lindsey Graham last January that the election had been fraudulent. After seeing Giuliani’s evidence, the authors report, Graham — a devoted Trump loyalist — dismissed the allegations as being at a “third-grade” level.

There’s no secret about why Republicans are so panicked about the political future. In the 2020 census, the percentage of white Americans was 57.8, down from 63.7 just 10 years ago. And that demographic shift will only accelerate in the years ahead.

Add in another trend: In 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the White House, the electorate was 88% white. Last year, that figure had fallen to 67%. And while Trump won the white vote by 58 to 41, he lost nonwhites — fully one-third of the electorate — by 71 to 26. No wonder Graham has warned that his party faces a “demographic death spiral” if it fails to attract more minority support in future campaigns.

But instead of heeding Graham’s warning, the Republicans have followed a different path. Instead of wooing minority voters, they are trying to block their access to the ballot box. It is a deeply cynical strategy that is ultimately doomed, but in the short run, the GOP’s voter suppression efforts threaten to undermine the integrity of our democratic system.

So will Joe Manchin have the guts to stand up to that strategy? Or will he abandon his own principles and let the anti-democratic forces prevail?

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at