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The debate over voting rights could very well go nowhere in Congress, bogged down in part by party messaging, sweeping generalizations and inflexibility. Both of Maine’s senators are well positioned to help cut through that noise and get something done.
The actions and words from several state legislatures around the country underscore the need for Congress to shore up federal protections to safeguard the fundamental right to vote for all legal voters. As an extension of former President Donald Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election, Republican state lawmakers across the country have pursued and passed new laws in the name of election security. But some of their own comments, like indicating that some votes are worth more than others, speak more to voter suppression rather than security.
The imperative for congressional action is clear. The political path forward is much murkier.
Democrats, minus a notable holdout in Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are pushing the sweeping For the People Act as a solution. Some argue that American democracy hinges on the more than 800-page bill’s passage. This is hyperbole, even with the obvious need for action.
We want to see action on voting rights. We also recognize that the For the People Act is more than a voting rights bill. It contains a host of other provisions like campaign finance and ethics reforms that, while sounding good in many cases, make it easy for Republicans to dismiss the entire package as a liberal wish list and power grab. So our message to Democrats is this, even if it should go without saying: In the push for stronger voting rights protections, focus on actual voting rights.
Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was asked on CNN last weekend about the For the People Act, a bill he has co-sponsored and is working on as a member of the Senate Rules Committee. King said that he doesn’t support the bill as written and thinks there are things that can be negotiated and modified.
“But the guts of it, Jake, is voting rights. It has a lot of other pieces. For example it has public financing of elections. It has a lot of other pieces in it. But the important part for me is protecting voting rights,” King told CNN’s Jake Tapper in a remote interview from Millinocket. “And that’s becoming more urgent by the day, based upon what’s going on around in the states.”
There is also an urgent need for Congressional Democrats to adapt to political realities. Manchin outlined his opposition to the For the People Act last weekend, along with his continued commitment to preserving the Senate filibuster. That effectively dooms the bill as written in the Senate, even if other Democrats wanted to try to get rid of the 60-vote threshold. The House of Representatives passed the bill in March, with both Rep. Chellie Pingree and Rep. Jared Golden supporting it.
But Manchin also continues to float the idea of reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in a bipartisan way. He and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska urged congressional leadership to take this path in a May letter.
“Inaction is not an option. Congress must come together – just as we have done time and again – to reaffirm our longstanding bipartisan commitment to free, accessible, and secure elections for all,” Manchin and Murkowski wrote. “We urge you to join us in calling for the bipartisan reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act through regular order. We can do this. We must do this.”
Now, such a bipartisan path requires actual bipartisan engagement. So far, Murkowski is the only Senate Republican who has supported a bipartisan VRA reauthorization. That brings us to our message for Republicans: they should join Murkowski in this push.
When the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts invited Congress to readdress that part of the legislation. It’s past time to take him up on that invitation. This isn’t the only thing lawmakers can do to protect voting rights across America, but it is the least they can do.
We asked both Maine Senators’ offices if they would support the idea of a bipartisan Voting Rights Act reauthorization.
“Senator Collins is open to bipartisan discussions to ensure our elections are free and fair,” Collins spokesperson Annie Clark said in a statement. “There are reforms she supports – such as efforts to disclose dark money and foreign influence contacts with political campaigns. She believes we should work on issues like those where we can find areas of agreement. Senator Collins does not support using taxpayer dollars to finance political campaigns, as [the For the People Act] proposes.”
“Senator King believes that voting rights are the bedrock foundation of the American experiment in self-government – and he would hope that all of his colleagues, from both parties, would agree,” King spokesperson Matthew Felling said in a statement. “He is prepared to work with any and all members of the Senate to advance legislation that strengthens our representative democracy for Americans across the nation.”
Like any other state, Maine only has two voices in the U.S. Senate. But given their positions as more moderate, consensus-driven members within their caucuses, they each can play an important role in advancing the voting rights debate. One Republican plus one independent does not equal 60, but both Collins and King should work to steer the Senate toward a bipartisan voting rights approach that protects the rights of all eligible voters and can clear a filibuster.