The Freedom to Vote Act is almost certainly doomed

By Fabiola Cineas

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who rejected his party’s last major voting rights reform bill, is hopeful Republicans will come to the table on the new Freedom to Vote Act.
Al Drago/Getty Images

Congress has repeatedly tried and failed to pass comprehensive voting rights reform this year, even though the Democratic Party holds the majority. Now Democrats are trying again to hit back at state-level voting rights restrictions passed by Republican-controlled legislatures.

The Senate votes on Wednesday on a new voting rights bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, What’s different this time around, they claim, is that the bill is based on a proposal from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — who refused to vote for the party’s last attempt, the wide-reaching For the People Act, because it lacked bipartisan support. (The bill would have faced a Republican filibuster in any case, but Manchin’s refusal was the death blow, since it meant Democrats could not break the filibuster and pass the legislation.)

Yet despite Manchin’s attempt to engage with Republicans, there is no evidence that Republican senators plan to back the revised voting rights measure this time, either. Democrats would need 10 Republicans to join them for the 60 votes that would break the GOP filibuster and push the bill forward.

Democrats are moving ahead with the bill knowing that it’s almost certainly doomed. But the vote is likely to reignite the debate about whether Democrats should bypass the filibuster in order to pass it. If Republicans block the bill, as they likely will, the next question is not what Democrats want to do about voting rights — it’s whether moderates like Manchin are willing to change the Senate rules in order to do it.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s statement when he announced the vote alluded to that reality: “I hope that our Republican colleagues will join us in good faith, and as I have said before, if they have ideas on how to improve the legislation, we are prepared to hear them, debate them, and if they are in line with the goals of the legislation, include them in the bill,” Schumer wrote. “But Republicans must come to the table to have that conversation and at the very least vote to open debate.”

What’s in the Freedom to Vote Act — and what isn’t

The Freedom to Vote Act contains many of the same provisions as the For the People Act, or HR 1, which passed the House in March. But the bill narrowed some of the terms to appease moderate Democrats. For example, the revised bill gives more implementation flexibility to states and election officials when it comes to adopting the rules, the Brennan Center pointed out. It also reduces the scope of the federal government’s small donor matching program that accompanies the campaign finance overhaul. And while the Freedom to Vote Act does require nonpartisan rules for redistricting, it no longer calls for states to use independent commissions when drawing new congressional districts, according to Democracy Docket.

Like HR 1, the new bill wants to make permanent the temporary voting expansion options that helped more people than ever before vote in the November 2020 presidential election. It would expand early voting and make voting by mail easier:

  • The bill expands voters’ ability to vote by mail, establishing basic national standards that allow no-excuse early voting for all eligible voters. States would have to let voters request absentee ballots online, and election administrators must be allowed to distribute absentee ballot applications.
  • Voters won’t have to provide any more identification to vote by mail than they would when voting in person, which means a state can’t require notarization of ballots or a witness signature for authentication.
  • Under the legislation, states would also have to take more steps to resolve issues with signature verification — when the signature on a ballot seems like it doesn’t match the signature on the registered voters list. Two election officials of different political parties would have to agree that there is a problem with the signature.
  • Each state would have to allow at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for a minimum of at least 10 hours in jurisdictions with at least 3,000 voters. The bill specifies that early voting polling places should be located within walking distance of public transportation hubs and be available in rural areas and on college campuses.
  • Absentee voting and voting at home would have to be accessible for those with vision impairments or hearing impairments, for example, and entrances, exits, and voting areas at polling places would need to be accessible to voters with disabilities.
  • To avoid the postal service delays during the last presidential election season, the proposal requires postal facilities to clear all ballots the same day the ballot is received. And to provide voters with peace of mind, the bill would mandate that each state initiate a program to track and confirm the receipt of mail-in and absentee ballots.

But the bill also goes further. It includes some items that have long been on election reformers’ wish lists. While it doesn’t override state laws requiring voter ID, it would make it easier for voters to comply with them:

  • For states that require identification for in-person voting, voters can present a wide set of physical identification cards and documents as well as digital documents and copies that state their name, like a student ID or passport, or even a hunting or fishing license, bank card, utility bill, or SNAP identification card.
  • The bill would also make Election Day a legal public holiday.
  • Automatic voter registration would become the standard, registering people to vote unless they opt out. All states would also have to allow voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day.
  • The bill would restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who have completed their sentences, but not to those still serving sentences.

The new bill also goes further than the For the People Act, which was first introduced in 2019, to counter the election subversion tactics that came out of the 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump pressured state and local election officials to overturn his loss based on false claims of widespread voter fraud. Under Georgia’s new election law, Republican lawmakers removed local election officials, most of them Democrats, from their positions for no clearly stated reason. The new bill addresses these:

  • The bill would increase penalties for voter intimidation, voting interference, and giving false elections information.
  • It also gives elections officials greater protections against partisan removals and, through penalties, protects against the intentional mishandling of ballots. It prevents the illegal purging of voter rolls by requiring states to notify individuals of the potential removal and how they can contest it. The bill would require states to ensure that voters don’t have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote, and it won’t be illegal for officials or volunteers to distribute refreshments to people waiting in line — a practice that recently became illegal in Georgia and Florida.

Finally, the bill calls for broader reforms to how the US draws congressional districts and finances elections.

  • Partisan gerrymandering that especially harms communities of color would be curbed under the bill’s call for uniform redistricting criteria. As states draw new legislative boundaries to reflect population changes during the 2021 redistricting cycle already underway, the threat of political parties manipulating the lines of electoral districts could unfairly give more power to a certain party and disenfranchise millions of voters. A report from the Center for American Progress found that unfairly drawn congressional districts led to the election of 59 politicians from 2012 to 2016 who would not have won otherwise.
  • The bill would establish a voluntary small donor matching system for elections to the House of Representatives. The federal government would match small donations of up to $200 at a 6:1 ratio, which means for every dollar a candidate raises, the government would match it by up to six times. The programs would be funded by a new election assistance fund, not through taxpayer money.
  • Any organization that spends more than $10,000 in an election cycle must disclose all of its major donors, the bill’s attempt to counter “dark money.”
  • The bill prevents coordination between candidates and super PACS.
  • An overhaul and restructuring of the Federal Election Commission would dissolve its partisan gridlock.

The GOP filibuster will likely block the bill

Democrats face mounting pressure to pass voting rights reform from activists and constituents who see the issue as monumental to the future of the country, and to counteract the hundreds of anti-voting bills introduced by Republicans nationwide. Nineteen states have passed 33 new ordinances this year that restrict voting rights, according to a new report from the Brennan Center.

In a statement Wednesday, NAACP president Derrick Johnson said urgency to pass voting rights protections is at its highest: “I have heard from many of my colleagues and members that the lack of priority around voting rights will be the undoing legacy for this presidency.”

Though some Democrats like Manchin and Schumer remain hopeful that some “reasonable Republicans” will support the new legislation, Republicans have shown no interest in shifting their opposition. The gridlock has incited calls to shift filibuster rules or eliminate the filibuster altogether, though Manchin has withstood those efforts.

“The Freedom to Vote Act is the legislation that will right the ship of our democracy and establish commonsense national standards to give fair access to our democracy to all Americans,” Schumer said. “I hope Republicans now join us in common cause to protect the integrity of our democracy.”