Manchin, Sinema’s unwillingness to change filibuster rules may cost Democrats the Freedom to Vote Act

American democracy is again on life support, and those in charge of saving it are unwilling to operate. Biden and the Democrats, hot on the heels of their failure to pass the Build Back Better Act, seem unable to pass their Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act without breaking a Republican filibuster.

While the fight over this legislation is all over the national media, the reason why we need it–the Republican takeover of elections at the state and local levels–has gone relatively undiscussed.

In what has been described by the Associated Press and other sources as a “slow-motion insurrection,” Republicans have tried, and in some cases succeeded, in taking control of election operations at the local level. In Georgia, for example, GOP lawmakers recently passed an election bill giving their General Assembly power over the state board of elections.

This is a nightmare scenario, a future where voter rolls and even vote tallies are overseen by partisan officials. The only way to counter this is through federal legislation, which, thankfully, Democrats have tried to pass. However, despite having a majority in the House of Representatives, control over the Senate (with Vice President Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote in the split chamber), and control of the White House, they can’t seem to successfully pass legislation protecting voting rights due to one obstacle.

While Republicans can filibuster the legislation, or prevent it from being brought to a vote in the Senate, Democrats have the seats to change Senate rules and remove the filibuster with just a simple majority. This is where the obstacle comes in, or rather, obstacles 1A and 1B: senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

Both Manchin and Sinema have expressed their unwillingness to change filibuster rules, and because the Democrats only have 50 seats, either’s opposition to the rules change would have doomed the proposal.

It’s easy to blame party leadership for their inability to corral the votes, but it’s not their fault entirely. 

American politicians are free to vote against their party, and the only things the party can really threaten is to strip a politician of committee seats or to run a primary challenge. For both senators, a primary challenge threat won’t come to fruition for years. As far as committee seats, Democrats can’t risk pushing either senator across the aisle by exiling them, as that would hand control to the Republicans.

Changing the filibuster is a big step, and Manchin and Sinema have all the leverage, at least for now. If Democrats want to pass voting rights legislation before the midterm shuffle, they aren’t going to succeed by browbeating Manchin and Sinema until they either change their minds or feel compelled, or coerced, to action.

If the legislation is going to be passed, Manchin and Sinema need to be willing to change the filibuster rules for the legislative package on their own accord. To do so, Democrats must change their path. They need to more publicly call out Republican intrusion into the voting process, and they need to pare down their package to only the bare necessities to ensure at least somewhat fair elections in 2024. 

By exposing Republican attempts to control the voting process, Democrats can present a clear dilemma to Sinema: either the filibuster stays or our voting rights do. Right now, the fight over the package is bigger news than Republican election power-grabs. If that’s flipped, there’s a good chance that Sinema will feel compelled to action.

By slimming down the legislation, Democrats can alleviate Joe Manchin’s probable fear that if he carves out the filibuster for strong Democratic legislation, Republicans will crucify him in 2024. West Virginia is a very red state, so Manchin has to be careful to avoid offending his constituents that don’t share his party. If the package is whittled down, it gives him the ability to respond to Republican attacks with the fact that he did reduce the size and power of the eventual legislation before it was passed.

Democrats need to pass some form of voting rights protections before 2024 and ideally before the midterms in 2022. To do so, they have no other options besides whittling down their legislation to appease the most important Joe in the party–not Biden, but Manchin.