Any legislation that Democrats hope to pass and put on President Joe Biden’s desk needs Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) support first. The chances for his vote seem to be slipping away for the For the People Act, a sweeping election reform package.
But the legislation’s supporters, particularly progressives in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, aren’t giving up.
Despite large coalitions of national groups organizing the grassroots campaign to pass the bill, the campaign to win Manchin’s support has largely been a local affair. A coalition of West Virginia groups is working to educate West Virginians and Manchin’s office about the bill and why he should support it.
So far, it’s been for naught. He is the only member of the Senate Democratic caucus not to co-sponsor the bill and told ABC News on Wednesday that it’s because it does not have bipartisan support.
It’s not for lack of effort from local groups. The push to woo Manchin began the night before Democrats officially won their Senate majority. Ryan Frankenberry, state director for the progressive West Virginia Working Families Party, fired off a letter to Manchin’s office on Jan. 5 as the returns for Georgia’s two special elections started to come in. He wrote that he was hopeful about the night’s elections and that he looked forward to working with Manchin’s office when Democrats held the Senate majority.
“[We] recognized before Georgia flipped that there was a possibility for this scenario,” Frankenberry said. “We’ve been planning on it.”
The plan is to pressure Manchin with niceness.
“I would use the phrase encouraging rather than pressuring,” said Sam Hickman, executive director of the West Virginia chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
He wants to involve Republican voices. We hear what he’s saying, but we think there will come a time where it’s very clear that their obstruction is the first and foremost thing they care about.
Ryan Frankenberry, state director, West Virginia Working Families Party
The groups running this encouragement campaign hope to remind Manchin about his past support for similar policies when he served in the West Virginia state government that are now a part of the For the People Act.
For example, as West Virginia’s secretary of state, he oversaw the implementation of the Help America Vote Act, a national law mandating new election standards for every state — just as the For the People Act does. When he was governor, he backed a law introducing a public election financing program for judicial elections. The For the People Act includes a voluntary public financing program for congressional elections.
“He knows the positive impact that these types of reforms can have,” said Julie Archer, coordinator for West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections. “We’re encouraged, and we just want to encourage him to do the right thing.”
To convince Manchin to support the For the People Act, the local coalition has held rallies and phone banks to talk to West Virginians, plus district office visits and constituent meetings with Manchin’s office. The West Virginia Working Families Party also went on the air with a radio ad on Wednesday calling on both Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) to support the For the People Act.
The ad connects West Virginia’s founding in opposition to Southern slavers to a need for pro-democracy legislation today in response to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“Today democracy and freedom are at risk,” the ad says. “And the truth is, they are as precious now as when West Virginia was founded. That’s why we’re calling on Senator Capito and Senator Manchin to support the For the People Act.”
Voting rights advocates can also point to polling by two pro-For the People Act groups, Represent.Us and Un-PAC, showing broad support in West Virginia for the bill.
The groups also note the recent success they had in the spring state legislative session in killing a bill that would have reduced voter access by eliminating the two most popular early voting days in the state and making it easier for county clerks to purge voters from the rolls.
“We saw that as a major victory,” Frankenberry said. “They were hearing a lot of pressure.”
With the state legislative session over for now, the West Virginia activist groups hope to focus all of their efforts on pushing Manchin to support the For the People Act. But now the question is whether it’s too late.
Manchin has repeatedly said the legislation must have bipartisan support to win his vote, even though he previously issued a statement declaring his support for many elements of the bill. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says that “100%” of his focus is “on stopping this new administration,” including all legislation it supports.
The bill faced universal opposition from Republicans at a mark-up in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on Tuesday where the vote deadlocked 9-9. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) can still discharge the bill to the Senate floor, where it is expected to face a Republican filibuster.
Schumer has promised that “everything is on the table” to pass the bill, including changing the Senate’s filibuster rules, but Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are vocally opposed to doing that. Manchin has, however, made statements in favor of a so-called “talking” filibuster as an expansion of the filibuster. But it is not clear what this means.
“It’s a positive that Sen. Manchin has talked about expanding the filibuster to include a talking filibuster,” Frankenberry said. “And we recognize when he says he wants to involve Republican voices. We hear what he’s saying, but we think there will come a time where it’s very clear that their obstruction is the first and foremost thing they care about, and these bills are too important for the people of West Virginia.”
Right now, it appears that Manchin doesn’t intend to support a pathway for the For the People Act to pass. Local groups still hope that their efforts to show support from West Virginians will bring a change of heart.
“The position that he is in is not lost on us,” Hickman said. “He’s got bargaining power like nobody’s business. We hope he uses that bargaining power to line up with average people.”
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