American democracy is at a critical juncture. Across nearly all 50 states, anti-democratic measures are being introduced and adopted that could enable partisan actors to interfere in election processes and affect election outcomes. It is now up to Congress to protect our democracy by adopting national, uniform standards that build confidence in elections and ensure full and equal voting access.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has proposed a set of practical measures that all members, including Republicans, should support. But it is only a start.
Since the Jan. 6 insurrection, Republican state lawmakers have used election integrity as a smokescreen for blatant power grabs. These new measures would permit state legislatures to reject voters’ choices, shift control over election processes away from qualified administrators and into the hands of partisan legislators who have a stake in the outcome, and penalize election workers who are just trying to do their jobs. There is also a growing slate of proposals that restrict voting access, particularly for Black, Indigenous and other voters of color.
Senate path starts with Manchin
Despite what you might hear about “states' rights” and elections, the Constitution clearly gives Congress power to enact national standards for federal elections, and Congress has used this power before. Earlier this year, the House approved pro-voter legislation that would supersede many recently enacted election subversion measures. This bill has been before the Senate for many months now. Meanwhile, public confidence in elections is faltering.
The time for lengthy debate has passed. The clearest path for the Senate begins with the Manchin proposal, so I'm encouraged that some Senate Democrats are discussing an approach that builds on it and could release their ideas this week. Among Manchin’s commonsense measures are pro-voter policies such as no-excuse voting by mail, uniform voter ID standards, extended early voting, and redistricting reform that prohibits partisan gerrymandering.
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The Manchin package should include a few other essential provisions. For example, same-day voter registration should be available nationwide. This is especially important where, unbeknownst to them, an eligible voter’s name gets mistakenly stricken from the voter rolls. Other ways to strengthen elections include mandatory voter-verified paper ballots and robust post-election audits that can reliably confirm election results, coupled with protections for voters with disabilities.
A new federal law should also eliminate the discretion of election personnel to discard validly cast ballots and prohibit partisan actors from removing election workers without cause. Overall, these policies could form what might be called a “Manchin Plus” bill.
Partisan politicians say their anti-democratic bills and laws are intended to protect the integrity of elections, but these claims are patently false. Almost none of these measures would improve the security of elections or boost public confidence in results. Consider legislation that reduces polling place hours: Are Americans to believe that election boogeymen emerge to cause mischief only in the evenings, except on Sundays when they are up and at it bright and early?
A Manchin Plus package would actually protect elections and improve public confidence. National standards making registering and voting more convenient and accessible instill trust in the process. National standards on how ballots are handled and how votes are counted instill trust in the process. When Americans have positive voting experiences, public faith in democracy improves and, significantly, more voters turn out. Uniform standards ease confusion and frustration over today’s patchwork of election rules across states.
And by reducing opportunities for partisan interference, the public can be assured that election outcomes are determined by the people’s will. The bottom line is that more people will vote and do so with the confidence that the election is secure and that their vote will be counted.
National standards are essential
There was a time when members of both major political parties came together to protect Americans’ fundamental right to vote. For decades, Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress stewarded legislation that expanded voting protections and instituted practical registration and election administration standards, including passage and reauthorization of the monumental Voting Rights Act. Regrettably, far too few of my Republican Senate colleagues have co-sponsored pro-voter legislation in recent years.
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I have hope that a Manchin Plus package can attract support from Republicans who still believe in preserving free and fair elections. I implore my former Republican colleagues to step forward in this pivotal moment. Look beyond your own states, which may at present have secure and functional elections. Instead, act in the best interests of an American democracy under assault. After all, while you represent the voices of the people of one state, a significant component of your oath is to support and defend the Constitution for the betterment of all U.S. citizens.
Our country would benefit enormously from seeing bipartisan support for national standards like those in a Manchin Plus bill. But the stakes are too high to let partisanship doom this effort. I am a strong proponent of bipartisanship, but I am a stronger proponent of democracy. Congress must be the backstop for the attacks on democracy and the right to vote. If Republicans remain uniformly opposed to policies that strengthen our democracy, Democratic senators, including my friend Joe Manchin, must do what is necessary to enact these critical protections: Institute a filibuster exception for voting-rights legislation before the August recess, so a Manchin Plus package can become federal law.
Our most cherished rights as Americans may depend upon it.
Doug Jones (@dougjones) served as a U.S. senator from 2018 to 2021. He is the author of "Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing That Changed the Course of Civil Rights.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: If Republicans won't protect voting and elections, override filibuster