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Right move by moderate Democrats

Despite a little public ribbing from President Joe Biden, and knowing full well how most all of his fellow Democratic senators feel about the issue, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is taking a stand on HR 1, the biggest federal effort to overhaul U.S. election law in many years.

Named the For the People Act — aren’t all pieces of legislation meant to be “for the people”? — it covers a whole lot of ground. Among other things, it would (according to the Washington Post):

¯ Require every state to gather and update information on people from its databases and automatically register eligible people to vote, unless they opt out.

¯ Limit how voter rolls can be purged.

¯ Guarantee that you can register the day you go to vote, either at early voting or on Election Day.

¯ Require at least 15 days of early voting for at least 10 hours a day, including some time before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m.

¯ Require each state to have independent redistricting commissions (each with five Democrats, five Republcians, five others — and no lawmakers) and draw up new congressional districts. It would let citizens challenge alleged gerrymandering.

¯ Require super PACs and “dark money” groups to publicly disclose their donors.

¯ Require a public match for small campaign donations, to boost underfunded candidates; these public fund would come from banks’ and corporations’ civil penalties.

¯ Require Facebook and Twitter to publicly report campaign ads’ sources and prices.

¯ Make the first ethics code for Supreme Court justices.

¯ Prevent tax money from being used to settle sexual harassment or discrimination cases against members of Congress.

¯ Add oversight for lobbyists and foreign agents.

¯ Require presidential candidates to release their tax returns.

We support many of these ideas. Some use the light of transparency to fight political corruption, which breeds in darkness and has plagued our nation and our state. Some would eliminate obstacles to voting, which is good; many such obstacles are unnecessary and limit the number of young, poor and working-class voters.

But this is too much to swallow in one bite. It’s impossible for the public to really know what’s going on, and that sets up skepticism. Also, this bill would nationalize too much of our election system, which draws much of its strength from being decentralized. Sure, county and state election officials are far from perfect — the razor-thin race for New York’s 22nd Congressional District last year showed evidence of that — but that decentralization is also a big part of the reason our elections haven’t been hacked by foreigners, or overturned unjustly by disgruntled candidates.

Voting rules can’t be partisan, or perceived as partisan, just like baseball rules can’t be seen as tilting toward one team. The system needs broad buy-in across the spectrum in order to function. The rules need to disappear into the background so the debate can be about the the issues and candidates.

Many Republicans see HR1 as a partisan attempt to wrest power from the states and instead centralize power in Washington, and at least to some degree, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., see it that way, too. They have made it clear they will not vote to support the bill, and Biden knows without them, it will likely fail. So he publicly criticized the “two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends,” though he did not name them.

No matter — Manchin understands what is important here.

“I think it’s the wrong piece of legislation to bring our country together and unite our county and I’m not supporting that because I think it would divide us further,” he said.

Good.

Of course, he did not let Republican lawmakers off the hook, saying there is still a need for a truly bipartisan deal.

“And if they think they’re going to win by subverting and oppressing people from voting, they’re going to lose,” he added.

In many states, Republican leaders have been passing laws to restrict voting access by reeling back mail-in voting and early voting that was initiated during the coronavirus pandemic — to great success, given the huge increase in voter turnout. It’s wrong to put up barriers like that.

Going against party lines on matters such as election law or the filibuster does not make Manchin an elephant in donkey’s clothing. It makes him a leader who understands it is more important to do the right thing for his constituents than to put on a partisan show. A little jab here and there from the likes of Biden won’t stop him — and Biden knows that, though he is more beholden to the partisan show than Manchin.

Perhaps if Manchin and Sinema can hold strong, lawmakers will, indeed, be forced to instead take another look at revamping the Voting Rights Act in a manner that really does work … for the people.

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