Joe Manchin’s proposed changes to U.S. election laws deserve broad support
JOE MANCHIN, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, is a paradoxical figure. He torpedoed many of his party’s most expensive plans, from climate change legislation to removing the filibuster from the Senate. However, without this desire to confuse his Democratic colleagues, Mr. Manchin could not win in a state where Donald Trump won nearly 70% of the vote in November. Democrats owe him their majority with one vote in the Senate, which they are very fond of.
As a result, Mr Manchin’s proposal to reform electoral laws is worth taking seriously, especially now as this week’s successful electoral bill backed by most of his party, known as the name of HOUR1, has been sidelined thanks to the systematic obstruction that Mr. Manchin wants to preserve. His compromise has three main parts: ending gerrymandering, making voter registration automatic, and requiring some form of identification for people who vote in person.
The package is not the comprehensive electoral reform many Democrats are advocating as an antidote to the chaos unleashed by the losing candidate in last year’s presidential election. But it avoids HOUR1 recklessly focuses on public financing of election campaigns. In the past, he would have been hailed as a model of bipartisan wisdom.
Take the gerrymandering first. Most states in the United States give the power to draw congressional boundaries to elected politicians. It’s an invitation to cheat that politicians usually find it hard to resist. The result is strangely distorted constituencies that make elections less competitive.
Mr. Manchin wants to put an end to this practice, by entrusting the drawing of borders to non-partisan commissions, as is already happening in seven states. It’s hard not to agree with this, but Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, did, saying the plan “takes the redistribution of state legislatures and puts it in the hands of computers.” As if legislatures did not use computers either.
Mr. Manchin has an equally reasonable proposal for voter registration. Political parties and elected officials play too large a role in controlling the maintenance of eligible voters lists in American states. The ideal system would facilitate voter registration, ensure the accuracy of the lists of who can vote in each state, and put this important administrative work out of the influence of politicians running for office.
Mr Manchin is proposing a system in which eligible voters would be automatically registered unless they decide to opt out. Such a system should encourage participation in elections, which both parties should wish and which obviously does not favor one over the other.
The last part of Mr. Manchin’s offer is the one designed to appeal to the Right. For at least two decades, Republicans in state legislatures have said it is essential that voters present some form of identification at polling stations. This requirement has often been played for a political advantage: firearms licenses are acceptable, students usernames are not. Since November, when the stolen election conspiracy theory took hold, that momentum has only grown.
Mr Manchin is proposing to give Republican lawmakers most of what they have long asked for, by allowing utility bills to serve as proof of identity. Most Americans from both parties support voters-username laws. Even so, hardliners on both sides reject Mr. Manchin’s idea. On the left, some say that it is not necessary to show ID at polling stations, as it is very rare for one person to impersonate another when voting. Yet America has a public interest in ensuring that elections are not only secure, but also seen to be secure. Others on the right say only photo ID should count. This makes sense in a country like France where there is a username menu. But Republicans, like the Conservative Party in Britain, are opposed to username cards for ideological reasons, even if they think a document that represents one should be shown in the voting booths.
On this point, as on others, Mr. Manchin’s proposal is the very definition of reasonableness. However, given America’s fractured politics, that hardly guarantees success. Republicans in Congress dubbed the plan the “Stacey Abrams” bill, after the Georgian politician who backed it. Although they seem likely to reject Mr Manchin’s reform, it deserves their support. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Radically Reasonable”