OP-ED: Will Joe Manchin be a voting rights hero?

Taylor Branch
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on June 10, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

Sen. Joe Manchin carries a fateful burden. By quirk of gridlock, he is literally the swing vote between two warring visions for the vote itself.

If he gives his decisive 50th vote in the Senate to pass S 1 — the For the People Act — millions are sure to revolt against perceived tyranny from Democrats expanding the franchise with national standards. If he votes no, millions are sure to revolt against perceived tyranny from Republicans restricting the franchise with new state laws.

Poisonous division will intensify either way, at least for a time.

Manchin correctly believes that extreme partisanship is a danger signal for American democracy. By the Founders’ design, our “experiment” in republican self-government rests on public trust in votes, which President Lyndon Johnson once called “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.”

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Yet confidence in republican institutions has frayed for decades by every objective measure, and vote-based American democracy is disparaged or helpless in many countries ruled by autocrats, armies and coups. Wherever democracy weakens, appeals to violence break loose.

The pending crisis is frightful but hardly unprecedented. In fact, hyperpartisanship has been a constant threat when Americans contend over who can vote. Conflict is nearly inevitable because our Constitution does not define the electorate. Nor does it give anyone an explicit right to vote. Voting rights now cherished routinely were once battlegrounds, and U.S. history offers warnings along with lessons for repair.

West Virginia example: Manchin’s home state was born from prolonged rancor over voting rules written into the Virginia state constitution of 1776. Virginians who lived in its western counties protested representation that heavily favored property holders and slaveholders east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The malapportionment was so severe that ex-presidents James Madison and James Monroe, plus the revered Chief Justice John Marshall, supported reform at a special convention in 1829. Delegates were chosen under the current constitutional formula, however, and they rejected “this maggot of innovation.” With only one western representative voting for the status quo result, sectional disputes festered until they split Virginia some 30 years later.

Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times during the Civil War. On April 18, 1861 — six days after the attack on Fort Sumter — wildcat secessionists attacked the same U.S. armory that John Brown recently had occupied in his famously failed attempt to spark an anti-slavery rebellion. U.S. Army troops, having captured Brown for the gallows, burned the armory this time to keep weapons from the expected pro-slavery rebellion in Virginia.

Most western Virginians stayed loyal to the Union, defying their Confederate government. “The Kanawha Valley is wholly traitorous,” charged the Confederate general and former Virginia governor Henry Wise. Citizens there initiated plebiscites and conventions counter to Confederate ones, petitioning Congress to admit a territory first called Kanawha. They persevered until West Virginia became the 35th state on June 20, 1863. This unique origin gave Harpers Ferry a permanent new address just as the invading Confederate armies overran it again headed toward Gettysburg.

Manchin, a Democrat, is unusual, befitting his home in West Virginia. He chooses not to have a residence on dry land near Washington for Senate sessions, and lives instead with his wife, Gayle, on a houseboat named Almost Heaven anchored in the Potomac River. He represents a blue-collar region turned overwhelmingly Republican, spanning Appalachian privation, natural beauty, the fading lure of coal, and a few dissenters claiming they belong to Virginia.

Abraham Lincoln applied patriotic wisdom to the constitutional tangles long ago. “It is said that the admission of West Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession,” he acknowledged. “Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution and secession in favor of the Constitution.”

14th Amendment: Lincoln recognized two hard facts. First, partisan strife over freedom cannot be wished away. Second, patriotic hope and strength take direction from the Constitution’s first three words: “We the People.” After the Naturalization Act of 1790, which had confined naturalized citizenship to immigrants “being a free white person,” the Andrew Jackson era battered down property and education qualifications to establish universal white male suffrage.

In 1866, Republicans passed the 14th Amendment for black citizenship without a single Democratic vote in the House or Senate. Democratic legislatures in ex-Confederate states promptly killed chances for ratification — unanimously in Florida, 95-1 in the South Carolina House — whereupon Congress sent U.S. soldiers to resurrect the “due process” Amendment we celebrate today.

Republicans and Democrats remained at loggerheads over the vote. When Section 2 of the 14th Amendment failed to secure the franchise for men who had been enslaved, Republicans passed the 15th Amendment with zero Democratic votes. Largely to enforce it, Republicans established the U.S. Justice Department shortly after ratification in 1870.

Women struggled another half-century for voting rights, until Congress overcame a filibuster by Southern Democrats to secure the 19th Amendment in 1920. Four years later, the Indian Citizenship Act made Native Americans eligible for voting rights that took another four decades to realize in every state. Republicans still invoked Lincoln in crisis. More than 80% of Republicans voted yes in Congress to defeat a titanic filibuster and abolish racial segregation by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1965, eight days after John Lewis led a voting rights march in Selma, President Johnson bluntly told a joint session of Congress that Americans had allowed white supremacists to trample and tranquilize the 15th Amendment.

“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” he declared. “No law we now have on the books can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.”

Two months after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, Congress overcame yet another filibuster by Southern Democrats to pass the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which quietly changed the face of the United States by opening legal immigration and naturalized citizenship to the whole world.

Race-based restrictions, Johnson promised, “will never again shadow the gate to the American nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.”

Johnson hastened an extraordinary switch. His Democrats became the party of civil rights while Republicans courted resistance, and both parties have downplayed the racial signals that sharply reversed their historical identities after 1965.

One vote: Now the United States teeters at a major crossroads over the vote. So far, Republican senators have rejected every compromise crafted toward bipartisanship. If they remain steadfast in their opposition, and Manchin votes against S 1 for that reason, then Congress effectively will sanction a rash of state laws restricting voters and elections.

Similar laws almost certainly will proliferate. They open an ominous backward path for government machinery to control voters rather than vice versa. Aside from violating the core premise of our republic, those efforts cultivate long-term cynicism. Already they have spawned violence on widespread belief that elections are rigged, and partisan denial blocked the bipartisan investigation of a mob assault aimed to overturn our last presidential election.

If Joe Manchin votes yes, S. 1 will create what amounts to an affirmative right for every U.S. citizen to vote. (The 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments were phrased negatively to keep excluding voters then deemed unfit.) The lawful mandate of government would facilitate rather than hinder that right, letting candidates and parties compete for constitutional majorities to govern. Voters would gain a fair chance to push both Democrats and Republicans toward higher ground.

— Taylor Branch writes books about U.S. history. His "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63" won the Pulitzer Prize.