Mr. McConnell is right. The For the People Act, which Senate Democrats gave the symbolically significant designation S. 1, might help Democrats. That does not mean it, or other voting reform bills Democrats are considering, is bad.
The sprawling bill requires states to adopt universal voter registration, same-day registration, ample early voting, no-excuse absentee balloting and nonpartisan commissions to draw legislative district maps. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a separate, narrower bill, would shore up anti-discrimination voting laws that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013.
Passing either might help Democrats. Or it might benefit Republicans; after all, GOP congressional candidates fared well in the high-turnout 2020 election. If a fairer system aided one party over the other, it would be because more voters want that party to govern. Maintaining the status quo, which needlessly discourages turnout, keeps the playing field tilted in a manner generally thought to help Republicans. Imposing new voting laws that make voting harder, as state-level Republicans are doing across the country, would tilt it further in their direction. Democrats have a reasonable complaint, and sensible national voting rules should alarm no one committed to the notion that the people are sovereign.
Mr. McConnell pointed out that Democrats favored passing a sweeping voting law before the 2020 election, implying that their motivation cannot be merely to counter post-2020 GOP voter-suppression efforts. That is true. Voting standards were inconsistent and unsatisfactory across the country before Republicans began in earnest to make them worse following last year’s vote. In fact, Republicans have for many years pushed laws designed to suppress Democratic turnout, and after the 2010 Census they wrung illegitimate partisan advantage out of the redistricting process. The bills would address a decade of anti-democratic behavior on the part of Republicans and decades more of bad policy, poor management, and neglect on the part of states and localities running elections.
Also on Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) argued that the For the People Act would suppress “millions of votes . . . by allowing millions of people to vote illegally,” raising the prospect that the act would register undocumented immigrants to vote. This argument is even less credible. The bill’s critics have no evidence of substantial fraud in places that already have voting standards such as those S. 1 envisions. They do not even have a plausible theory of how the act’s provisions would result in massive fraud.
When Mr. McConnell defends the status quo, he is really defending kinks in the electoral system that make it less likely that election results reflect the popular will. Democrats should continue pressing election reform. That could require paring down S. 1 so that it addresses only voting access and gerrymandering, or using the John Lewis bill as a vehicle for reform, as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) appears to prefer. Republicans of conscience — such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who has worked on voting reform bills before — should help. There is no higher priority.