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Nick Saban, Jerry West sign elections letter to Joe Manchin

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday began debate on a voting rights bill passed last week in the House of Representatives. 

One of the key actors in whether the legislation can be voted on via simple majority in the 50-50 Senate — and without the Republican minority enacting the filibuster — will be Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, who received a push from four sports West Virginia luminaries to “secure our democracy by protecting election integrity, principled Presidential transitions and our national security during transitions.” 

The letter was signed by Alabama football coach Nick Saban, NBA legend and executive Jerry West, former WVU Mountaineers quarterback and College Football Hall of Famer Oliver Luck, and former Mountaineers linebacker and College Football Hall of Famer Darryl Talley. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who has no known West Virginia ties, also signed the letter. 

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“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,” the letter, dated Jan. 13, said. “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 two factors the group was keen on addressing were “elections open to all Americans” and “impartial conduct and score-keeping,” while noting that many states tightened voting laws in 2021 after the 2020 elections. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, were all copied on the letter.

Saban and Manchin are longtime friends from a small community in Marion County, West Virginia University professor of political science John Kilwein said. 

“I think it’s the personal history,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “Joe Manchin and Nick Saban go back to school days. … They’re close friends.

“Politically, that’s worked out in that Nick Saban has supported Joe Manchin’s re-election bids throughout the years, has appeared in ads. And Nick Saban’s a pretty popular character (in West Virginia), even though he’s in Alabama. He’s a hometown guy.”

In addition to Saban, West, Luck and Tally all carry weight in the state. 

“Jerry West is Jerry West. He’s an icon here. He’s the model for the Mountaineer statue on campus,” Kilwein said. Tally and Luck also have strong ties to the university. 

“The only one I didn’t figure out was Tagliabue,” Kilwein said. The ex-NFL commissioner (1989-2006) has made voting access a priority of his. 

Kilwein said what the group laid out in the letter was basic in nature. Manchin himself agreed in principle to the Freedom to Vote Act from last year and tried to garner Republican support for it. 

The House passed a combination of the “Freedom” bill and another called the “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.” But Republicans will block debate via the filibuster unless Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, back off their stances of filibuster protection. Democrats could change the filibuster with complete unity, however, Senate rules, as currently constructed, require 60 votes for debate to end.

“The only way it was going to get through was if Sinema and Manchin said, ‘For this particular issue, we’re going to carve out an exemption to the filibuster,’ ” Kilwein said. 

The logic behind that, Kilwein said, is that the issue at hands – voting rights – is a most basic American right; the filibuster should not impede such legislation. 

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca. 

Contributing: Savannah Behrmann

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