Obama backs Manchin's voting rights compromise

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Former President Barack Obama put his weight behind Sen. Joe Manchin’s voting rights proposal in Congress, urging Republicans to join with Democrats to pass the legislation.

Obama said that the Manchin proposal is “a product of compromise,” and that it is “an effort by maybe the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, or maybe the most conservative Democrat in Congress … to come up with some commonsense reforms that the majority of Americans agree with, that Democrats and Republicans can agree with.”

Obama said he was taking the unusual step of commenting on a debate in Congress because the stakes for the country are high, in his view.

Former President Barack Obama speaks at rally in Philadelphia in 2020.
Former President Barack Obama addresses a Democratic rally in Philadelphia in October 2020. (Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)

“I have tried to make it a policy not to weigh in on the day-to-day scrum in Washington, but what is happening this week is more than just a particular bill coming up or not coming up to a vote,” the former president said.

“I do want folks who may not be paying close attention to what’s happening ... to understand the stakes involved here, and why this debate is so vitally important to the future of our country.”

Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has opposed the sweeping For the People Act since it was introduced earlier this year, but last week he released a list of compromise measures he would be willing to back. He would favor 15 days of early voting and making Election Day a public holiday, as well as automatic voter registration. But he also backs requiring voter ID and does not favor universal no-excuse absentee voting, two positions favored by many Republicans.

Manchin’s compromise would also ban the practice of partisan gerrymandering, in which state legislatures redraw congressional districts in irregular shapes that are designed to give their party an advantage. Good-government advocates say that nonpartisan commissions should redraw the lines every 10 years, and this is what Manchin is supporting.

His memo also contained proposed changes to a separate bill — the John Lewis Act — which deals with restoring the Voting Rights Act, whose provisions were weakened in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., addresses a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the HUD proposed 2022 budget on Capitol Hill on June 10.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on June 10. (Alex Wong/AFP via Getty Images)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been outspoken already in opposing Manchin’s compromise. That will make it hard, maybe impossible, for Democrats to win over the 10 Republicans they need to pass the legislation. But the bill is expected to be introduced Tuesday, and the views of Republican senators will become clearer as the Senate debates it and amendments are offered.

Obama framed his support for the legislation in the context of a larger history, in which voting rights have periodically come under assault, and at a moment when democratic norms and freedoms are threatened in the U.S. and abroad.

He traced the evolution of the Republicans’ stance on voter fraud, and the insistence by GOP lawmakers over the last 20 years that obstacles to voting were needed to prevent fraud, despite their ongoing failure to document any meaningful examples of cheating.

Obama also admitted that both Democrats and Republicans have abused the redistricting process.

But he said that in addition to Republican-controlled states where the legislatures are rolling back access to early voting and voting by mail, there is a startling rise in Republican legislatures passing laws that would make it easier for politicians to overturn, change or meddle with election results after Election Day.

“Republican politicians who didn’t like the outcome of the presidential election … now want to change the rules for how ballots are counted, and who gets to count them,” Obama said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., right, head to a news conference in the Capitol on June 17.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., head to a Capitol news conference on June 17 to express opposition to the For the People Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

He admitted that “individually, each one of these laws making it harder to vote may not seem like a big deal” and that “a lot of people voted in the last election.” But, he cautioned, “the violence that occurred in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, just a few months ago, should remind us that we can’t take our democracy for granted."

“Around the world, we’ve seen once-vibrant democracies go in reverse,” Obama said. “It is happening in other places around the world, and these impulses have crept into the United States. … We are not immune from some of these efforts to weaken our democracy."

“If we have the same kinds of shenanigans that brought about Jan. 6, you know — if we have that for a couple more election cycles, we’re going to have real problems in terms of our democracy long term.”


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