Decoding the mysteries of Joe Manchin's cryptic statement on one of the Democrats' top priorities

Will Democrats actually be able to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping bill aiming to protect and strengthen voting rights across the county? Like with so many other questions, the answer almost certainly comes down to one person: Sen. Joe Manchin.

The West Virginia Democrat is the only member of the caucus not to endorse S. 1, the Senate's version of the bill. But on Thursday, he released a ponderous, meandering, and cryptic statement about the bill — one that didn't give supporters of the bill too much optimism.

The top-line analysis is pretty simple. Passing any significant version of the For the People Act will require eliminating or significantly altering the Senate filibuster, something which Manchin has repeatedly insisted he doesn't want to do. Though some of his statements leave him some wiggle room on supporting reform, Manchin's statement about S. 1 is hardly a rousing endorsement that would suggest he's willing to upend a feature of the Senate rules that he has long defended in order to pass it. So it looks unlikely Manchin will go along with any plan to circumvent the filibuster to enact For the People.

The deeper analysis is more complex. It's possible Manchin will come around to weakening the filibuster on another issue under separate circumstances, which would open the door to passing S. 1. And there are features of the bill he enthusiastically endorses:

As our lives become more complex and dominated by technology, the notion of restricting voting to a single 8 or 12-hour timeframe is not indicative of how most voters live. Expanding voter access to the polls by requiring at least fifteen days, including two weekend days, of' early voting in every state will increase turnout and help individuals, especially those who have traditionally not been able to participate, cast their votes. We can also do more to help those groups that have been historically disenfranchised and underrepresented in our federal elections through bipartisan solutions like those included in the Native American Voting Rights Act that would authorize additional, dedicated resources for Native American and Alaska Native voters.
Our country must also improve the security and reliability of our election infrastructure. Foreign adversaries continue to contribute to misinformation during elections and recent hacks into software used throughout the federal government show that such attacks are growing increasingly advanced. There are multiple bipartisan bills included in the For the People Act that would greatly enhance our ability to combat these evolving threats, including the Secure Elections Act and the Prevent Election Hacking Act.

Manchin also threw his support behind efforts to force disclosure of political spending.

At the same time, he clearly resisted some of the bill's efforts to intervene in local election administration, saying: "As a former Secretary of State, I know, firsthand, the importance of local decision-making around voter accessibility and election security." (He correctly pointed out that, as others have reported, many election officials feel that parts of the bill as written do not provide enough time to implement some of the changes it requires, even if those changes are desirable.)

The statement also mentioned the idea of bipartisan compromise multiple times, even though the notion that there could be a significant bipartisan compromise on an issue as fraught as voting rights is farfetched. Republicans are increasingly convinced they need to suppress the vote in order to stay in power.

In one line, Manchin even seemed to give some credence to the GOP talking point that Republican voters' distrust of election results is a reason to be hesitant about pushing forward with reforms, even though that distrust comes from Republican lawmakers spreading misinformation and false fears about voter fraud:

Even though our democratic institutions have survived foreign interference and a violent attempt to enter the United States Capitol during the counting of Electoral College votes, America's declining trust in the government and each other makes it harder to solve key problems. That trust will continue to diminish unless we, as members of Congress, transcend partisanship to strengthen our democracy by protecting voting rights, implementing commonsense election security reforms, and making our campaign finance system more transparent.

Unmentioned in the statement at all was the single-most consequential part of the For the People Act: redistricting reform. The Brennan Center for Justice explained the importance of this provision:

Last decade saw some the most aggressive partisan gerrymandering in U.S. history. Democrats gerrymandered where they could, but Republican success in the 2010 midterms gave them control of the process in far more states — and they used it, gerrymandering to create a net bonus of 16 to 17 seats in the House.
Without reform, this decade could be even worse. The Supreme Court's 2019 ruling that partisan gerrymandering does not violate the Constitution means that would-be gerrymanderers now have license to use new mapping technology and powerful analytics about voters to create even more durable and pernicious gerrymanders. And as historically has been the case, much of this gerrymandering invariably will target communities of color.
The For the People Act responds by barring maps that have the intent or effect of giving a party an undue statewide advantage. To measure effect, the For the People Act sets out an easily applied two-part statistical test. If a map fails the test, it must be redrawn, regardless of intent. Inclusion of this straightforward test means that it will it be easier to identify bad maps and that biased maps can more quickly be thrown out by courts.

Whether Democrats are able to keep their majority in the House in 2022 may come down entirely to the passage of this single plank of the bill. Even if Biden pulls off a historically successful first two years of his presidency and earns a wave of popular support, the effect of the coming gerrymandering and redistricting could mean that Democrats will nevertheless lose control of the House — thus hindering the second half of Biden's term.

It's not clear whether Manchin knows or cares about these dynamics — the issue is just conspicuously missing from his statement. As is any acknowledgment that bipartisan compromise on this issue is almost certainly impossible.

So what is Joe Manchin thinking? Does he really believe Republicans will come around, or is he just talking about bipartisanship for show?

It's hard to say. But he has seemed to engage in performative bipartisanship before only to abandon it when push came to shove.

"We're going to make this work in a bipartisan way," Manchin said in early February about Biden's coronavirus relief bill. "My friends on the other side are going to have input. And we're going to do something that we agree on. I'm not just going to do it just down the lines of, just saying party-line vote."

Manchin ended up voting for the bill in a purely party-line vote after he extracted a minor concession from his Democratic allies reining in spending on unemployment insurance. The senator appears to be making similar noises around Biden's upcoming infrastructure push. He claims he wants the plan to be bipartisan, but his clear enthusiasm for a giant spending bill makes it seem likely he'll follow the same path he took on the relief package.

Is that where he'll end up on the For the People Act? It's possible. Perhaps he's trying to turn down the temperature around the bill, which could make it easier for him to eventually take aggressive steps to pass it. On the other hand, reading the tea leaves of his most recent statement, there's not much sign he's as enthusiastic about voting rights as he was about spending on economic relief and infrastructure. And while spending bills can be passed with a simple majority through budget reconciliation, passing S. 1 demands 60 votes or changing the filibuster — a much heavier lift. That means we're left in a position that is increasingly familiar — with Manchin holding all the cards.