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Vote on new Manchin-inspired elections bill could come this week

File Photo VOTING — County election officials receive a demonstration of new voting machines at a 2018 conference.

CHARLESTON — A slimmed-down version of a bill meant to standardize election rules across all 50 states, prevent partisan gerrymandering and disclose dark money could come to a vote in the U.S. Senate this week.

The Freedom to Vote Act, a bill based in part of the failed For the People Act, was introduced last week in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. The bill is co-sponsored by seven senators, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and is based on a compromise version of the For the People Act Manchin drafted in August.

“The right to vote is fundamental to our Democracy and the Freedom to Vote Act is a step in the right direction towards protecting that right for every American,” Manchin said in a statement. “As elected officials, we also have an obligation to restore peoples’ faith in our democracy, and I believe that the commonsense provisions in this bill…will do just that.”

The bill is divided into three sections dealing with voter access and election administration, election integrity and civic participation and empowerment.

For voter access, the bill would require states to implement automatic voter registration and online voter registration, plus allow for same day voter registration by 2024. It would make Election Day a federal holiday and require 15 days of consecutive early voting for federal elections. It would allow all voters to request mail-in absentee ballots without the need for excuses and allow for ballot drop boxes.

The Freedom to Vote Act also prohibits removal of voters from county voter rolls based on returned mail, frequently used to determine whether a voter has moved. It would require provisional ballots to be counted regardless of what precinct where they were cast. It would also create a nationwide standard for requiring photo and non-photo identification at polls, as well as return the right to vote to felons who served their time.

West Virginia already allows for automatic voter registration. People who go to the Division of Motor Vehicles can be automatically registered to vote unless they opt out. West Virginia offers 10 days of early voting, including Saturdays. The voter ID portion of the Freedom to Vote Act appears to model itself on West Virginia’s broad voter ID requirements. And the state already allows felons who complete their sentences to vote.

But Republican West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, in a letter sent last week to Manchin, raised concerns about other portions of the bill. Warner said lack of access to broadband in some counties could make same-day voter registration hard to implement, ballot drop boxes would create security concerns, and spoke against making changes to West Virginia’s mail-in ballot requirements, voter list maintenance program and provision ballot rules.

“You can’t fix a bad bill,” Warner said. “A bill that is premised on false assumptions and designed to counter the clear language of the U.S. Constitution and the 10th Amendment, is a bill not worthy of construction or compromise. The ‘For the People Act,’ ‘Freedom to Vote Act,’ or whatever label placed on a similar bill version, no matter how repackaged, is disingenuous and a troublesome effort.”

The Freedom to Vote Act also establishes federal protection for election workers from harassment or partisan interference, strengthens election cybersecurity, requires other states to use voting machines that have paper trails (West Virginia already does this), requires post-election audits (West Virginia already requires), and develops training procedures for election workers.

Other items in the bill include a ban on partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, including the use of independent redistricting commissions, requires super PACs and other groups that spend money in elections to disclose their donors and requires greater disclosure on political ads.

The bill requires 60 votes meaning it needs all 50 Democrats and at least 10 Senate Republicans. Members of the Senate GOP, including Shelley Moore Capito, have been vocal critics of Democratic attempts to force federal rules on state election officials. She endorsed Warner’s sentiments in a similar letter Warner wrote to Capito last week.

“Can’t say it any better than this,” Capito said on Twitter.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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