Democrats in Congress are quietly splintering over how to handle the expansive voting rights bill that they have made a centerpiece of their ambitious legislative agenda, potentially jeopardizing their chances of countering a Republican drive to restrict ballot access in states across the country.
President Biden and leading Democrats have pledged to make the elections overhaul a top priority, even contemplating a bid to upend bedrock Senate rules if necessary to push it through over Republican objections. But they are contending with an undercurrent of reservations in their ranks over how aggressively to try to revamp the nation’s elections and whether, in their zeal to beat back new Republican ballot restrictions moving through the states, their proposed solution might backfire, sowing voting confusion and new political challenges.
The hand-wringing demonstrates how urgent the voting issue has become for both parties since November, when President Donald J. Trump spread false claims of voter fraud that many Republicans believed. In the months since, Republican-led statehouses have advanced a wave of new laws clamping down on ballot access.
Democrats have coalesced around the idea that pushing back on such measures is a modern-day civil rights battle that the party cannot afford to lose. “Failure,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said last week, “is not an option.”
But while few Democrats are willing to publicly say so, the details of the more than 800-page bill — which would radically reshape the way elections are run and make far-reaching changes to campaign finance laws and redistricting — have become a point of simmering contention. Some proponents argue that Democrats should break off a narrower bill dealing strictly with protecting voting rights to prevent the legislation, known as the For the People Act, from collapsing amid divisions over other issues.
“Democrats have a narrow opportunity. There is a window here that could close anytime,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. “I worry the kind of fights necessary to keep even the Democratic coalition together could blow up the whole thing and lose the chance to get anything done.”…
The most visible hurdle to date is the apparent opposition of Mr. Manchin, who said last week that he opposed allowing the federal government to wade into election law, which is typically left to the states. He signaled that he would be unwilling to vote for any elections bill that was not bipartisan, much less provide the 50th vote needed to change the Senate rules to get past an all-but-certain Republican filibuster….
Behind the scenes, two election lawyers close to the White House and congressional Democrats said Mr. Manchin was not the only one on their side with reservations about the measure. They insisted on anonymity to discuss the concerns because few Democrats want to concede that there are cracks in the coalition backing the measure or incur the wrath of the legion of liberal advocacy groups that have made its enactment their top priority.
Black House members, for instance, are deeply uneasy over the bill’s shift to independent redistricting commissions, which they fear could cost them seats if majority-minority districts are broken up, particularly in the South. Before the bill passed the House, its authors spent significant time reassuring members of the Congressional Black Caucus that there were adequate protections in place to preserve their districts. But a prominent committee chairman, Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, remained so concerned that he voted against the bill, despite having sponsored it.
Some fixtures of the party establishment believe the small-dollar public financing plan, which sets a six-to-one matching program for donations under $200, could incentivize and turbocharge primary challenges, particularly from the far left, by allowing them to cut into incumbents’ usual fund-raising edge more quickly.
Then there is a more vexing political concern, voiced most clearly by Mr. Manchin but shared by others, that after Mr. Trump spent months falsely claiming that Democrats were cheaters trying to rig the 2020 election against him, some independent voters — fairly or not — will view the legislation as an attempt to do just that and punish the party in the 2022 midterms.
State elections administrators have raised their own complaints, too, quietly lobbying their senators to modify national voting requirements they say would be onerous or impossible to put in place by 2022. Some have complained they were simply not consulted on a major federal rewrite of the system they believe they have overseen effectively.
“I’ve been saying that no election administrators were harmed in the making of this bill,” quipped Charles Stewart III, a leading expert on elections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Running elections is detail-intensive, and it’s not just shifting stuff around. You’re adding new features and adding complexity, not just shifting complexity from one place to another.”