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Playing catch-up after some time off

I’m back from a relaxing vacation spent on the various beaches of Central Florida. Yet even while spending time on Daytona and Clearwater beaches, I’m too much of a political junky to turn the phone off completely. I see I missed a few things.

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First of all, the mark-up on the For the People Act came out last week. Even with some tweaks here and there, it appears the bill may still face an uphill climb even among Senate Democrats, one of whom is Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

The national press seemed surprised when Manchin told an ABC News reporter last Wednesday he is more supportive of the stand-alone John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore laws requiring certain states (usually Southern states with a history of black voter disenfranchisement) to get pre-clearance from the feds when making changes to election laws.

ABC News called its scoop an “exclusive,” but you, dear readers, had the scoop one week earlier when Manchin told me the same thing on May 5.

Regardless, For the People Act is considered by some a controversial bill that will take local election management away from states and create more potential for voter fraud. Supporters of the bill see it as a way to ensure voting is made easier and people are not needlessly thrown off the voter rolls.

One can sympathize with the supporters of the For the People Act. Many states have made changes to their election laws based on the completely unsupported claim the 2020 election was stolen from former president Donald Trump. (Feel free to send me emails, but unless you have the Holy Grail of evidence that the election was stolen, those emails will likely be sent to the junk folder.)

Republican lawmakers in those states place the blame on many things, including absentee ballots. Some states made arbitrary changes to their election laws to account for voting during the pandemic, which has caused howls (West Virginia did the same exact thing, but because Trump won here, no one brought a lawsuit.) If Republican state lawmakers are going to fall in one direction, some believe progressives and Democratic lawmakers pushing the For the People Act are taking things in the extreme opposite direction.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and the state’s three Republican members of the House of Representatives oppose the For the People Act. So does Republican Secretary of State Mac Warner, which means there are county clerks out there who also oppose the bill. No matter what you think about the bill, it’s county clerks who ultimately will have to implement it and will likely get no additional funding to do so.

Manchin, to his credit, is trying to find a middle ground like he always does. There is a middle ground if people want to find it. I’ve read the For the People Act and there are some good things in there, particularly when it comes to campaign finance. But I wouldn’t expect it to be the same bill it is now.

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Mick Bates, the four-term former Democratic chairman of the House Finance Committee and former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, switched his party registration last week from Democrat to Republican. Bates is a delegate for the 30th District representing Beckley, winning re-election 60 percent to 40 percent in 2020.

I was told by a reliable source in January that Bates was likely to make this switch. Bates tried to get support to replace outgoing House Minority Leader Tim Miley of Harrison County as the House’s top Democratic leader. Instead, the caucus chose Kanawha County Delegate and newspaperman Doug Skaff to lead its new 23-member minority.

That’s part of the reason Democratic lawmakers didn’t pick Bates to lead them: they dropped from 41 seats before the 2020 election to 23 seats after. In Bates’ defense, that’s not entirely his fault. Having Trump at the top of the ticket in 2020 helped bring about a red wave, giving our congressional delegation and Gov. Jim Justice sizable wins (which doesn’t happen without a large group of Democratic voters pulling that metaphoric lever for Republicans).

That wave also gave Republicans a supermajority in both the state House and Senate. Unless you clone a bunch of Manchins and put them on the ballot, you were not going to save those seats, many of which were in rural districts.

Bates had a tough job that was unwinnable. Not only did his caucus members reject him, but after he lost to Skaff, Bates lost his ranking member status on House Finance, arguably one of the two most powerful House committees. It wasn’t long after that when my sources told me a party switch was likely, though they predicted Bates would go independent before going Republican.

Rumor also has it that Bates wants a state Senate seat and that would mean challenging state Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, in 2022. The problem for Bates will be a past record of being a partisan Democrat. Bates is a nice guy and he would work with Republicans, but Bates also has numerous social media posts attacking Republicans just the same. There is a substantial public record that could be used to paint him badly in a primary, even if he just runs for re-election to the House.

In a statement to WV MetroNews, Bates said “I am far from the first person to make such a change and I will not be the last.” With Republicans holding a slowly widening voter registration majority, Bates is likely right.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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