“‘We are all certain that democracy is best when voting is open to everyone on a level playing field.’”
That’s University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, imploring West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, one of two widely perceived Senate holdouts (and, it’s widely reported, an in-real-life friend of Saban’s), to go to bat for passage of voting-rights legislation.
Saban, along with several prominent sports figures including NBA legend Jerry West and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, wrote to Manchin ahead of the introduction of the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act in the Senate. Some provisions of the bill — a product of a merging this week of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — include making Election Day a national holiday, widening access to early voting and mail-in ballots, and enabling the Justice Department to intervene in states with histories of voting-rights interference.
“We come from some of our Nation’s most popular sports leagues, conferences and teams. Some of us have roots and shaped our lives in West Virginia, others followed very different paths and some of us have been rivals in sports or business,” part of the letter reads. “But we are all certain that democracy is best when voting is open to everyone on a level playing field; the referees are neutral; and at the end of the game the final score is respected and accepted.”
Saban, 70, and West, 83, were born in the state of West Virginia.
The letter was also signed by former NFL players and West Virginia University alumni Oliver Luck and Darryl Talley.
The group wants Manchin and the rest of Congress to “guarantee that all Americans have an equal voice in our democracy and that Federal elections are conducted with integrity so that the votes of all eligible voters determine the election outcomes.”
Both Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a fellow Democrat and a fellow Senate swing vote on voting rights, have stated that they support the legislation — both were signatories to at least one prior to the separate bills’ merging — but will not vote to end or modify the Senate filibuster to secure passage. The current 50-50 split in the Senate, with independents Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont joining the Democrats with whom they are typically aligned, represents the barest majority for Democrats, as Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tiebreaking vote, but, without the support of Manchin and Sinema, Democrats cannot overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold and bring the legislation to an up-or-down vote.
Manchin was asked about the letter on Tuesday and said, “we should all support the right the vote, everyone, but not breaking the rules to make new rules.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer admitted the legislation could fail this week, but said he will continue to press the issue. “We ain’t giving up,” Schumer said. “It is a fight for the soul and the future of America.”
President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama have urged the Senate in recent weeks to end the filibuster, or create an exception to it for voting rights as has occurred for judicial nominees and confirmation of other executive-branch nominations.
The Senate standoff comes as Biden, who spent decades in the chamber before his two-term vice presidency under Obama, is wrapping up his first calendar year as commander-in-chief — having chalked up signature achievements with the bipartisan infrastructure bill and pandemic relief but falling short, to this point, in the shoring-up of voting rights and and his ambitious social and climate agenda. His administration’s response to inflation and its execution of the Trump administration–agreed withdrawal from Afghanistan have widely been considered stumbles.