WASHINGTON (AP) — When Congress took up sweeping voting and ethics legislation earlier this month, Democrats and Republicans were in agreement on one thing: If signed into law, it would usher in the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections law in at least a generation.
The bill passed in the House last Wednesday , while its fate in the evenly split Senate remains uncertain.
House Resolution 1, Democrats’ 791-page bill, would touch virtually every aspect of the electoral process — striking down hurdles to voting, curbing partisan gerrymandering and curtailing the influence of big money in politics.
“The first 300 pages were written by John Lewis,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in her weekly press conference last Thursday, referring to the civil-rights icon and longtime congressman from Georgia who died at 80 last July .
Republicans see those very measures as threats that would both limit the power of states to conduct elections according to their own prerogatives and ultimately benefit Democrats, notably through higher turnout, particularly among minority voters.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham went to far as to show a selected bullet-pointed list of provisions of the bill, known as H.R. 1, under the heading “The horribles of HR-1.”
The stakes are prodigious, with control of Congress and the fate of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda in the balance. But, at its core, a more foundational principle of American democracy is at play: access to the ballot.
“This goes above partisan interests. The vote is at the heart of our democratic system of government,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonpartisan good-government organization Democracy 21. “That’s the battleground. And everyone knows it.”
Republican legislatures in several states — notably Georgia and Iowa — have moved this week to impose new restrictions on the conduct of elections, even in an absence of evidence, as state elections officials from both parties and courts at the state and federal level have agreed, that any noteworthy issues of election integrity emerged in the 2020 election. Tennessee Republicans, meanwhile, sought to punish a judge for siding with an expansion of absentee voting amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic , and Arizona Republicans were facing an emergent corporate backlash as they pursued legislation that could have the effect of suppressing votes.
From the archives (November 2020): Trump asks Pennsylvania lawmakers to ‘turn around’ election results during GOP event in Gettysburg
Pennsylvania’s Democratic lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, hit back at claims of fraudulent votes by highlighting instances of ballots being case on behalf of deceased Pennsylvania voters — for Donald Trump. (He publicly suggested he was owed a reward being offered by the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, for anyone coming forward with evidence of voter fraud .)
Voting-rights lawyer Marc Elias, a central figure among Democrats as the Trump campaign’s fraudulent-election claims struggled to gain purchase late last year, confessed in an MSNBC interview that he is genuinely concerned that Republicans could succeed in tilting the electoral playing field to their entrenched advantage. “It’s just different this time,” Elias told host Rachel Maddow, arguing that the legislation being pushed in various state capitols “is every bit as damaging to our democracy” as was the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to halt the certification of the presidential election.
Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who sponsored the House bill, said that, outside of Congress, “these aren’t controversial reforms.” Much of H.R. 1’s language, he noted, was derived from the recommendations of bipartisan commissions.
Barriers to voting are as old as the country, but in more recent history they have come in the form of voter-ID laws and other restrictions that are up for debate in statehouses across the country.
Yet to many Republicans, H.R. 1 amounts to an unwarranted federal intrusion into a process that states should control.
From the archives (December 2019): Trump campaign adviser tells Wisconsin Republicans in secret recording that voting-place tactics will be stepped up
“It imposes from Washington, D.C., a one-size-fits-all regulatory scheme on each state,” Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said during a hearing on the bill. “What’s worse, it does this even though states have been traditionally allowed to generally run elections however they see fit.”
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Citing Congress’s constitutional authority over federal elections and pointing to vote-suppression efforts in multiple states, Democrats say national rules are needed to make voting more uniform, accessible and fair. The bill would mandate early voting, same-day registration and other long-sought changes that Republicans of late have opposed almost unanimously.
Key Words (November 2018): Midterm voter turnout was highest in a century — but U.S. won’t be confused with Australia any time soon
H.R. 1 would also require so-called dark money political groups to disclose anonymous donors, create reporting requirements for online political ads and appropriate nearly $2 billion for election infrastructure upgrades. Future presidents would be obligated to disclose their tax returns, which Trump refused to do, repeatedly stating inaccurately that a long-running audit by the IRS precluded the possibility.
Debate over the bill comes at a critical moment, particularly for Democrats.Acting on Trump’s repeated false claims of a stolen election, the Republican-controlled state legislatures pushing bills that would make it more difficult to vote number well into the dozens. Democrats argue this would disproportionately hit low-income voters, or those of color, who are critical constituencies for their party, as well as younger voters, including college students — with university-issued identification cards sometimes singled out in Republican-backed voter ID bills as impermissible.