The turbulent debate over the nation’s elections reached Congress’s doorstep this week, with House Democrats poised to pass sweeping nationwide standards for voter access Wednesday just as Republican lawmakers in dozens of states move to restrict polling access after Donald Trump’s November loss.
But it appears unlikely that the matter will be quickly settled at the federal level, with the narrow Democratic Senate majority and firm GOP opposition spelling apparent doom for any type of new voting rights legislation in the near term.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are barreling ahead with major rollbacks of early voting, mail voting and other state provisions that Trump and other Republicans oppose, while the Supreme Court on Tuesday heard a challenge to Arizona’s election laws that could further curtail the federal government’s power to police elections.
The opposing efforts have created a remarkable split screen between the hurried GOP drive underway in state capitals and the significant Democratic push in Washington — with both parties seeing election laws as a crucial factor in determining outcomes and as a motivating issue for their base supporters.
House leaders anticipate near-unanimous Democratic support — and zero Republican backing — for their bill known as H.R. 1, or the “For the People Act,” that would overhaul elections, campaign finance and government ethics law. Some liberal lawmakers are pushing to ditch Senate filibuster rules to pass it into law without Republican support.
“What we want to do is clear the air — clear the air of that big, dark money, clear the air of political gerrymandering and clear the air of the voter suppression that is out there,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said as lawmakers debated amendments to the bill Tuesday. “They know that their issues are losers with the American people. They know that big money and voter suppression is their path to victory, and that’s why they’re engaged in this.”
Meanwhile, GOP-controlled state legislatures around the country have been proposing laws that would restrict absentee balloting, early voting and other aspects of election administration that critics say represent a cynical ploy to make it harder primarily for Democratic voters to participate.
That effort follows on the heels of Trump’s baseless effort to undermine the 2020 election as rigged and the subsequent storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to thwart a joint session of Congress as it accepted the electoral college results for President Biden.
Among the dozens of state legislatures considering sweeping new laws that would restrict voting options, Georgia’s has garnered outsize attention in part because of the state’s leading role in the 2020 election. Trump fixated on his narrow loss there, and while state Republican leaders rebutted accusations that fraud had played a role in the outcome, GOP lawmakers say their proposals are needed to restore faith in the election process among Trump supporters.
The state’s House approved a sweeping measure Monday that would limit the use of ballot drop boxes, beef up ID requirements for mail voting and restrict early voting on weekends — the latter a direct assault, critics said, on Democrats’ long-standing “Souls to the Polls” program to encourage Black voters to cast ballots after church on Sundays.
Trump’s campaign of misinformation built on years of quiet GOP efforts to curtail voting expansion and make election laws a top-tier issue for Republican voters, whose opinion of early voting, mail-in ballots and other provisions to expand access sharply deteriorated last year.
Rep. Richard Hudson (N.C.), a member of the House GOP leadership, said Tuesday that the rapid expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic — sometimes by Democratic legislatures, sometimes by appointed election officials, sometimes by judges — fueled doubts in GOP voters’ minds.
“Any honest person could see that they created problems, at least some uncertainty, if not outright fraud, and so I think that’s why there’s a heightened awareness of it,” he said.
Voting issues dominated the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this past weekend in Orlando, where presenter after presenter repeated unsubstantiated and in some cases disproved claims that widespread fraud occurred in November, such as carloads of illegal ballots being dumped at counting facilities.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has started a Committee on Election Integrity, which began meeting in recent weeks and will act as a clearinghouse for suggestions to state GOP committees on how to change U.S. elections, a spokesman said.
Threats to voting laws loom in the courts, as well. The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard a Democratic challenge to two Arizona voting laws that they argue disproportionately affect minorities and therefore run afoul of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
While the justices appeared inclined to let those laws stand, the bigger question is what standard the court will ultimately set to interpret the law in the future. Democrats fear that a 6-to-3 conservative court could set a high bar for voting rights litigation, opening up the possibility that states could pursue even more restrictive measures that could harm minority voting.
A GOP lawyer made the matter clear Tuesday, when asked by Justice Amy Coney Barrett why Republicans intervened in the case to defend a law that would discount voters’ ballots if they are sent to the wrong precinct.
“Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” responded Michael A. Carvin, representing the Republican Party of Arizona. “Politics is a zero-sum game.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are preparing to litigate against any new state laws that they believe will curtail ballot access. The Department of Justice under Biden is also expected to take a leading role in policing alleged voter suppression across the country.
The Democrats’ legislative answer to the Republican effort is a sprawling 791-page bill that establishes national standards for voter access — mandating online registration, voting by mail, at least 15 days of early voting and the restoration of voting rights for released felons. The bill also mandates congressional redistricting be done by independent commissions, requires the disclosure of “dark money” contributions to political groups, and creates a system of public financing for congressional campaigns, among dozens of other provisions.
Republicans oppose the vast majority of the bill, but when a previous version passed the House two years ago, they put up only token opposition, knowing it was dead on arrival in the GOP-majority Senate and with a Republican president guaranteeing it would not be signed into law.
Now, Democrats have a Senate majority — though a precarious one dependent on Vice President Harris’s tiebreaking vote — and a president who has signaled he is ready to sign the legislation into law. A White House policy statement Monday said the bill is “urgently needed to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen American democracy.”
Republicans have responded by redoubling their efforts to paint the bill as a partisan overreach. A GOP-affiliated advocacy group, the American Action Network, launched digital ads and phone campaigns in 51 House districts to undermine the bill.
“We had the backstop before; we have no backstop this time,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “I think everybody realizes that this would be a hijacking of the electoral process and a total transformation of the way we hold elections in America.”
In a vivid illustration of the bill’s higher profile, Trump himself made a special mention of the legislation in his 90-minute CPAC address Sunday — his much-anticipated return to the political stage.
Trump all but ignored the bill in 2019, but this year he told the crowd of conservative activists that the new version is a “disaster” for Republicans and highlighted provisions such as its elimination of voter ID requirements, implementation of automatic voter registration and mandated nonpartisan redistricting.
“This monster must be stopped,” he said. “It cannot be allowed to pass.”
Democrats have taken the opposite lesson from 2020, and party leaders say they are more determined than ever to act and create national standards of ballot access. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chair of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and a key advocate of the election package, said lawmakers had to counter the state-level Republican salvos on a national basis.
“Instead of redefining their party and figuring out what legislation and policies they can put forward that would appeal to more people — so they wouldn’t lose states like Georgia and Arizona — they have chosen to just resorting to changing the rules of the game,” she said.
While the For the People Act has near-universal buy-in from Democrats, it still faces a serious obstacle in the Senate — where the majority’s will can be frustrated by a minority filibuster, a roadblock that requires a 60-vote supermajority to clear.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear in a floor speech last week that the GOP would fight hard to block the bill, accusing Democrats of trying to “tilt the playing field in their side’s favor” and “unilaterally rewrite and nationalize election law.”
Klobuchar would not concede that the measure would inevitably encounter a filibuster and laid out plans for advancing it through her committee and onto the Senate floor later this year. Some Republicans, she said, have complained about election challenges that minimum national standards would fix.
While multiple Democratic senators have resisted a push from the left wing of their party to ditch the filibuster entirely, at least some lawmakers are laying the groundwork for a discussion about creating a limited exception for measures affecting civil rights and voting matters.
“Voting rights is preservative of all other rights, and we have to do everything we can to preserve the voices of the people in our democracy,” said Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.). “I think that the issues are urgent enough to leave all options on the table.”
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), H.R. 1’s lead author, said Democrats should feel a sense of urgency to bust through any roadblocks given the scale of the Republican effort to curtail voting rights ahead of the 2022 midterms — for which the GOP is also counting on a partisan redistricting effort for an additional House advantage.
“It’s important to keep this moving,” he said. “Republicans are absolutely determined to throw as many obstacles up as they possibly can, and exhibit A is Georgia, exhibit B is Pennsylvania, exhibit C is Arizona. And the list goes on and on from there, so the stakes could not be higher.”
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