Senate Democrats have reached an agreement on a compromise piece of voting rights legislation, three months after consideration of S.1., the For the People Act, was blocked by a Republican filibuster. S. 2747, the Freedom to Vote Act, was spearheaded in part by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) who had previously announced his opposition to the For the People Act due to its lack of bipartisan support.
Manchin collaborated closely with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other key Democrats like Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) to draft the proposal. It is expected to be the centerpiece of congressional Democrats’ renewed push for voting rights legislation this fall. Before the August recess, Schumer announced that “voting rights will be the first matter of legislative business when the Senate returns to session in September.” By earning Manchin’s support, the Freedom to Vote Act is already closer to being enacted than the For the People Act, although the filibuster remains a significant obstacle to its passage.
In today’s piece, we walk through what the Freedom to Vote Act would do, how it compares to the For the People Act, and what its prospects for passage in the Senate are.
How would the Freedom to Vote Act protect the right to vote?
The new bill draws from both the For the People Act and an outline of a voting rights compromise Manchin released in June. The primary focus of the bill is a national standard for how states conduct federal elections, intended to counter the wave of new laws restricting voting in states with Republican-controlled governments and ensure all Americans have equal access to the ballot box. All states would be required to:
- Enact an automatic voter registration system through their DMV and ensure all voters have access to online voter registration.
- Offer at least 15 consecutive days of early in-person voting, including two weekends.
- Offer same-day voter registration at all polling locations by 2024.
- Establish no-excuse mail voting for all voters in federal elections, with free postage for returning ballots, accessible drop boxes and an easy way to cure deficient ballots.
- Count all mail-in ballots sent by Election Day and received within seven days of an election.
- Count all provisional ballots for eligible races in a county, regardless of the precinct they were cast in.
The bill also makes Election Day a public holiday, restores the right to vote for felons who have served their time and includes targeted protections for populations facing unique challenges like people with disabilities, Native Americans and underserved communities.
Like the For the People Act, other sections of the bill target partisan gerrymandering, strengthen election security and combat the influence of money in elections by improving disclosure requirements.
How is it different from the For the People Act?
The Freedom to Vote Act contains many similarities to the For the People Act, especially in its provisions establishing uniform election rules. The bills diverge in other areas; for example, while the Freedom to Vote Act does mandate nonpartisan criteria for redistricting, it does not require the use of independent commissions for drawing new congressional districts. The bill also lacks many of the For the People Act’s campaign finance reforms, such as a voluntary public financing program for campaigns.
However, the Freedom to Vote Act is not merely a reformulation or a watered-down version of the For the People Act. In many aspects of voting rights and election reform, the bill represents a significant improvement over the original legislation by addressing issues not anticipated when the For the People Act was first introduced in March 2019.
Most significantly, the Freedom to Vote Act contains measures intended to combat the kind of election subversion we witnessed in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. The bill establishes federal protections to insulate election officials from undue partisan interference and makes intimidation of election workers a crime. It also restricts the ability of partisan poll watchers to challenge a voter’s qualifications. Finally, states would be required to use voting systems with a verifiable paper trail and federal election records and infrastructure would receive heightened protections to ensure the integrity and security of voting systems.
The Freedom to Vote Act also incorporates provisions of Sen. Jon Ossoff’s (D-Ga.) Right to Vote Act that would establish a statutory right to vote for the first time. States would be prohibited from enacting laws that make voting harder and any new restrictions would be subjected to heightened scrutiny by the courts. The bill allows virtually any voting rights case to be filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which could lead to a national, uniform pro-democracy jurisprudence. As a result, voting rights lawyers will have the tools they need to achieve fast, consistent victories against voter suppression laws in court.
In an olive branch to Republicans, the bill creates uniform standards for voter identification. However, these standards are more permissive than those already in place in many states and only apply to states that already have a voter ID requirement. The bill also does not ban voter roll purges, although it does place limitations on the practice such as a ban on voter caging.
What’s next in its path to passage?
Although the Freedom to Vote Act is backed by the Senate Democratic Caucus and the White House, it is unclear whether it will garner significant support from Senate Republicans. While Manchin has expressed optimism that voting rights legislation will be able to find bipartisan support, Manchin’s original proposed compromise outline received a lukewarm response from the GOP when it was first released and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already criticized the bill as a solution in search of a problem. If the legislation does not earn the support of at least ten Republican senators, then its fate likely depends on what steps Senate Democrats are willing to take to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Schumer intends to hold a vote on the compromise bill as early as next week that will test whether the Freedom to Vote Act has enough Republican support to overcome a filibuster. If it does not, then Senate Democrats will be faced with the choice of either letting the compromise bill fail or pursuing changes to the filibuster, like a carve-out for voting rights legislation. Manchin and fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have so far resisted calls from other Democrats and activists to either reform the filibuster or eliminate it completely to make it easier to pass legislation by a simple majority.
“The sacred right to vote is under attack across the country — and we need to take urgent action to protect it. I strongly support The Freedom to Vote Act and thank the eight Senators who came together to draft it. Let’s get this passed,” President Biden said.