Joe Manchin is only one part of the voting-rights story

Since January, Republican state lawmakers have introduced hundreds of aggressive bills to restrict voting access. In response, Congressional Democrats introduced the For the People Act to expand voting access by establishing a national baseline for ballot access and easing registration processes. On Sunday, Joe Manchin—the Democratic senator from West Virginia whose relative conservatism in a Senate with the slimmest Democratic majority gives him enormous leverage—published an op-ed in Sunday’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, announcing that he would not vote for the For the People Act, nor would he vote to eliminate the filibuster, one of a minority party’s strongest tools for obstructing legislation. The contemporary debate over the protection of voting rights, Manchin wrote, “is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage.”

The media machine whirred into action: the Manchin story was aggregated, re-posted, tweeted about, and became the subject of responding op-eds. Many headlines focused on the politics of the issue, emphasizing a blow to the Democratic Party and wondering over Manchin’s fate. “Joe Manchin just *totally* screwed Democrats,” a CNN headline announced, while a Post opinion columnist warned that Manchin’s “awful new stance could blow up in his face.” Other columnists and opinion contributors used the occasion to proclaim that Manchin “is right,” focusing their attention on Manchin’s calls for bipartisanship at a time of political polarization. At The Hill, a writer from the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, re-raised the specter of voter fraud, which is extremely rare, for a piece whose headline argued that Manchin “may have saved America.”

Much of the coverage focused on Manchin’s “bipartisanship” premise for rejecting the bill.  (The terms “partisan” and “bipartisan” appeared in the Senator’s op-ed thirteen different times.) Several used Manchin’s framing to characterize the act itself: A Bloomberg article used the phrase “partisan voting rights bill” in its headline, as did a Newsweek article. A headline from a widely syndicated Associated Press story put the word “partisan” inside quotation marks, but fixed the term to the bill all the same. Some outlets, like the Chicago Tribune, ran the story under a slightly altered headline: “Sen. Joe Manchin says he’ll vote against Democrats’ election bill, calling it ‘partisan’.”

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Headlines aren’t the entirety of a piece, nor are they the best place to convey complex information. Still, as many pointed out, the “partisanship” of the For the People Act is a symptom of a problem, rather than the problem itself. “I don’t recall Republicans asking for bipartisan support before they introduced 400 voter suppression bills & enacted 22 new voter suppression laws in 14 states so far this year,” Ari Berman, the voting-rights reporter for Mother Jones, tweeted. For NewsOne, Anoa Changa noted that the For the People Act has received support from nonpartisan organizations, and that the filibuster, whose end Manchin objected to, has deep roots in racist policies. Kevin Kruse, a historian, tweeted, “As we all rightfully complain about Joe Manchin’s dumb oped, don’t lose sight of the fact that federal voting rights protections have become ‘partisan’ solely because Republicans have chosen to make it so. Throw a microphone to every Republican in the Senate and ask why.”

That question—“Why?”—informs all of the best voting-rights coverage. In February, I talked with Jessica Huseman of Votebeat about the importance of covering the details of elections year-round. “People who think voting is important are not in short supply,” Huseman told me. “People who are entertained reading about voting might be.” The Manchin story has a level of conflict and intrigue that draws eyeballs, but it can be just as compelling—and arguably more important—to dig beyond the political fisticuffs and focus instead on the circumstances underlying Manchin’s position, the state of voting rights in America, and the consequence for the disenfranchised. Little more than a week ago, Democratic lawmakers in Texas left a legislative session in order to block restrictive new voting laws—a move that, Huseman reported, came “after Republicans threw out all of the previously agreed upon concessions in a closed-door session at the very end of the term last weekend and refused to allow questions about provisions they’d added.”

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That episode, however, hardly registered in coverage of Manchin’s decision. And while Manchin’s belief is his own, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Reporters are responsible to test his words against the present moment as well as the past. The stakes of our voting-rights debate extend well beyond one man’s ideas; coverage ought to treat them accordingly.

Below, more on politics and telling the whole story:

Other notable stories:

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites