▶ Watch Video: Senate to formally debate voting rights bill despite roadblocks

Several major sports icons have signed a letter calling on Senator Joe Manchin to support election integrity legislation. The letter — signed by University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, former NBA star Jerry West, former NFL star Darryl Talley, and former commissioner of the NFL Paul Tagliabue — urged Manchin and other members of Congress to enact “national standards” for federal elections.

“We come from some of our Nation’s most popular sports leagues, conferences and teams,” the letter said. “Some of us have roots and shaped our lives in West Virginia, other followed very different paths and some of us have been rivals in sports or business. 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.”

The letter, addressed directly to Manchin, goes on to state that America’s principles of free and balanced elections are under “intentional and unprecedented challenge,” noting the more than 20 states with current laws that restrict voting access to “secure partisan advantage.” 

Last year, Georgia passed one of the most contentious voting laws. FloridaIowa and Texas also enacted similar legislation.

The states’ laws prompted Democrats on Capitol Hill to push for federal voting rights legislation. Last week, the House approved the combination of two proposed voting rights bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Now, the Senate will debate the efficacy of the bills, which aim to implement national voting standards and restore certain aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Democrats remain determined to move forward with the legislation despite the high likelihood that Republican Senators will block it from advancing to a final vote.

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, leaves the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, January 13, 2022. Senate Democratic leaders are seeking to pressure reluctant Democrats to change filibuster rules so that the voting rights legislation could clear the chamber on a simple majority vote. 

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In order for the Democrats to advance the legislation without Republican support, they will have to change filibuster rules and the minds of two Democratic holdouts: Senator Kyrsten Sinema and Manchin. 

In their letter to Manchin, the sports icons asked for protections against impartial conduct and score-keeping, and for elections to be open to all Americans.

“Our democracy is at its best when all Americans are encouraged to participate,” the letter said. “We support measures to provide voters with a range of opportunities to obtain and cast a lawful ballot, including robust in-person, early, and absentee voting options. We support the use of election security, equipment and record-keeping measures that are reliable and evidence-based, and clearly support the integrity of the election process.”

Melissa Quinn contributed to reporting