The House late Wednesday passed expansive legislation to create uniform national voting standards, overhaul campaign finance laws and outlaw partisan redistricting, advancing a centerpiece of the Democratic voting rights agenda amid fierce Republican attacks that threaten to stop it cold in the Senate.
This year, however, the bill has taken on additional significance because of the new Democratic majority in the Senate and President Biden’s November win, as well as the efforts underway in dozens of Republican-controlled state legislatures to roll back voting access in reaction to former president Donald Trump’s loss and his subsequent campaign to question the election results.
Democrat after Democrat said this week that the GOP’s state-level efforts made it more important than ever to act at the federal level to preserve expansive voting laws. Many invoked the gains won in the 1960s civil rights movement by activists including John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who died of cancer last year.
“The right to vote is under attack,” said Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.). “Voter suppression is alive and well. Old battles have become new again. The legacy of the foot soldiers like John Lewis requires that we pick up that baton — the baton of voter access, the baton of voter equality — and we continue the next leg. Their cause is now our cause, too.”
The bill’s voting provisions would guarantee no-excuse mail voting and at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections; require states to use their government records to automatically register citizens to vote; restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences; and mandate the use of paper ballots.
Other provisions would create new disclosure requirements for “dark money” donations to political groups; require states to appoint independent commissions to draw congressional districts; and create new federal standards for election equipment vendors.
The bill would require tech platforms to disclose political advertising information; establish a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices for the first time; restructure the Federal Election Commission to an odd number of members to break partisan deadlocks; and require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.
The bill has become a lightning rod for Republican opposition, spurring claims that it is a partisan attempt to rewrite federal election laws in Democrats’ favor. No Republicans voted for the bill in 2019 or Wednesday night, when it was approved 220 to 210.
“It is not designed to protect Americans’ vote — it is designed to put a thumb on the scale in every election in America, so that Democrats can turn a temporary majority into permanent control,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said during floor debate Tuesday. “It is an unparalleled political grab.”
Among the legion of Republicans objecting to the bill is Trump, who mounted a months-long campaign to criticize the expansion of mail-in voting and other efforts to deal with the challenges created by the pandemic. After the election, his campaign sued to block the counting of voters in multiple swing states, while Trump himself led a baseless effort to claim the election had been stolen by Democrats.
“This monster must be stopped,” he said of H.R. 1 at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Sunday. “It cannot be allowed to pass.”
Former vice president Mike Pence also spoke out against the bill this week in a published column, calling the legislation an “unconstitutional, reckless, and anti-democratic bill that would erode those foundational principles and could permanently damage our republic.”
“Every single proposed change in HR 1 serves one goal, and one goal only: to give leftists a permanent, unfair, and unconstitutional advantage in our political system,” he said in the piece, which was published in the Daily Signal, a website affiliated with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Although virtually all Democrats, including Biden, have signaled support for the bill, the solid GOP opposition means the legislation is in deep peril in the Senate, whose rules allow a 41-vote minority to block most legislation from coming to a final vote. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made clear that Republicans plan to fight tooth and nail against it.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said this week that she expects to usher companion legislation through the Senate Rules Committee later this spring and ultimately to bring it to the floor. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “If you’re ranking the most important legislation of the year, that is way up there.”
However, with Republicans firmly opposed, the bill’s only path into law may be through the willingness of Democrats to abandon the 60-vote filibuster rule. Several Democratic lawmakers have openly discussed creating a limited exception for civil rights legislation, but key Democrats — including Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — have said they will not entertain any changes.
But with GOP legislatures moving quickly ahead of the 2022 midterms, an internal pressure campaign among Democrats is likely to ensue regardless.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Tuesday that by turning to the filibuster, Republicans were “using the filibuster to deny progress” in a throwback to the early days of the civil right movement.
“We’re not going to just give in to these arcane methods of denying progress,” he said. “People of color will not be quiet on this issue.”
One Democrat voted no: Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, who was among a number of Congressional Black Caucus members who raised concerns that the independent redistricting mandate could mean the elimination of some majority-minority districts in Republican states.
Republicans sought to highlight and attack various provisions of the bill, with a particular focus on the public campaign financing provision that would provide a 6-to-1 federal match for small-dollar donations raised by congressional candidates.
Democrats argued the bill would reduce the influence of wealthy donors. Although they were careful to construct the system to be funded out of corporate-fine revenue — not out of direct taxpayer funds — that did not stop the GOP attacks.
Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, argued that Democrats were “laundering” corporate money that under existing campaign finance law cannot fund federal political campaigns. And, he said, the corporate-fine revenue would be better spent filling the federal crime victims compensation fund, which is where federal fines and penalties are typically deposited.
“All 50 state attorney generals have told us that this vital Crime Victims Fund is nearly depleted, but instead of plussing it up, here we are today funding our own campaigns,” he said.
Two Democrats’ amendments were rejected on bipartisan votes. One, from Rep. Cori Bush (Mo.), would have prevented states from blocking incarcerated felons’ right to vote. Another, from Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), would have lowered the national voting age to 16.