House prepares to pass landmark voting rights, ethics bill
Published 3:34 pm Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Washington (AP) — House Democrats are poised to pass a sweeping elections and ethics bill, offering it up as a powerful counterweight to voting rights restrictions advancing in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country.
House Resolution 1, which touches on virtually every aspect of the electoral process, would restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strike down hurdles to voting and bring transparency to a murky campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to anonymously bankroll political causes.
This bill “will put a stop at the voter suppression that we’re seeing debated right now,” said Rep. Nikema Williams, a new congresswoman who represents the Georgia district that deceased voting rights champion John Lewis held for years. “This bill is the ‘Good Trouble’ he fought for his entire life.”
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To Republicans, though, it would herald a massive expansion of the federal government’s role in elections, infringing on states that limit ballot access in the name of election security.
“If this were to become law it would be the largest expansion of the federal government’s role in our elections that we’ve ever seen,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.
The stakes are monumental, cutting to the foundational idea that one person equals one vote and could shape election outcomes for years to come. The push comes after decades of court decisions and Republican-championed state laws that have imposed limits that have fallen hardest on key constituencies of the Democratic Party.
The measure, which was all but certain to pass the House in a vote expected Wednesday, has been a priority for Democrats since they won their majority in 2018. But it has taken on added urgency in the wake of Donald Trump’s repeated false claims of a stolen 2020 election.
Courts and even Trump’s last attorney general, William Barr, found his claims about the election to be without merit. But, spurred on by those lies, state lawmakers across the U.S. have filed more than 200 bills in 43 states that would limit ballot access, according to a tally kept by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
In Iowa, the legislature has voted to cut absentee and in-person early voting and prevent local elections officials from setting up additional locations to make early voting easier. In Georgia, the House on Monday voted for a law to require identification to vote by mail and allow counties to cancel early in-person voting on Sundays, when many Black voters cast ballots after church.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court appeared ready to uphold voting restrictions in Arizona, which could make it harder to challenge state election laws in the future.
When asked why proponents sought to uphold the Arizona laws, which limit who can turn in absentee ballots and enable ballots to be thrown out if they are cast in the wrong precinct, a lawyer for the state’s Republican Party was stunningly clear.
“Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” said attorney Michael Carvin. “Politics is a zero-sum game.”
Battle lines are quickly being drawn by outside groups who plan to spend millions of dollars on advertising and outreach campaigns.
Republicans “are not even being coy about it. They are saying the ‘quiet parts’ out loud,” said Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, a left-leaning group that aims to curtail the influence of corporate money in politics. Her group has launched a $10 million effort supporting the bill. “For them, this isn’t about protecting our democracy or protecting our elections. This is about pure partisan political gain.”
That’s the same charge Republicans level at Democrats.
“Democrats want to use their razor-thin majority not to pass bills to earn voters’ trust, but to ensure they don’t lose more seats in the next election,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said from the House floor on Tuesday.
A coalition led by Ken Cuccinelli, a former Trump administration official in the Department of Homeland Security, will spend $5 million pressuring moderate Democratic senators to oppose the bill.
“The imperative is stopping H.R. 1 because it’s that bad,” said Cuccinelli. “H.R. 1 is not about making elections better. In fact, it’s about the opposite. It’s intended to dirty up elections.”
So what’s actually in the bill?
H.R. 1 would require states to automatically register eligible voters and offer same-day registration. It would limit states’ ability to purge registered voters from their rolls and mandate the restoration of former felons’ voting rights in states where they aren’t allowed to vote. Among dozens of other provisions, it would also require states to offer 15 days of early voting and allow no-excuse absentee balloting.
On the cusp of a once-in-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries, typically a fiercely partisan affair, the bill would mandate that nonpartisan commissions handle the process instead of state legislatures.
Many Republican opponents in Congress have homed in on narrower aspects of the measure though, railing against the creation of a public financing system for congressional campaigns.
Davis charged that it would “launder corporate dollars” to publicly fund congressional campaigns. What the bill would actually do is use fines and settlement proceeds raised from corporate bad actors to create a pool of money open to candidates who meet certain requirements.
Republicans similarly attacked an effort to revamp the federal government’s toothless elections cop. That agency, the Federal Election Commission, has been gripped by partisan deadlock for years, allowing campaign finance law violators to go mostly unchecked.
They’ve also excoriated a section that would force the disclosure of donors to “dark money” political groups.
It “would put people’s private information on display and put their personal security at risk,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz. “People could lose their jobs, be shamed or even worse.”
Most campaigns and political groups are already required to disclose donor information. But over the past decade “dark money” nonprofits, which are not required to reveal such information under IRS law, have risen to prominence, often because they are attractive to wealthy interests that wish to remain anonymous.
Still, the biggest obstacles lie ahead in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.
On some legislation, it takes only 51 votes to pass, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. On a deeply divisive bill like this one, they would need 60 votes under the Senate’s rules to overcome a Republican filibuster — a tally they are unlikely to reach.
Some have discussed options like lowering the threshold to break a filibuster, or creating a workaround that would allow some legislation to be exempt.
Democratic congressional aides say the conversations are fluid but underway.