Democrats launch sweeping bid to overhaul U.S. election laws
Published Thursday, February 25, 2021 9:28PM EST Last Updated Thursday, February 25, 2021 10:33PM EST
An official counts ballots for Georgia's Senate runoff election at the Georgia World Congress Center on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
WASHINGTON -- Stacey Abrams, whose voting rights work helped make Georgia into a swing state, exhorted Congress on Thursday to reject "outright lies" that have historically restricted access to the ballot as Democrats began their push for a sweeping overhaul of election and ethics laws.
"A lie cloaked in the seductive appeal of election integrity has weakened access to democracy for millions," Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost Georgia's 2018 gubernatorial race, said during a committee hearing for the bill, which was introduced as H.R. 1 to signal its importance to the party's agenda.
Democrats feel a sense of urgency to enact the legislation ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, when their narrow majorities in the House and Senate will be at risk. The bill, which good-government groups have championed, is advancing against a backdrop of Republican-controlled states seizing on former President Donald Trump's false claims about a stolen 2020 election to push legislation that would make it more difficult to vote. Democrats argue that voters of colour, a key constituency for the party, would be disproportionately affected.
It also comes on the cusp of a once-in-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts, a highly partisan affair that is typically controlled by state legislatures. With Republicans controlling the majority of statehouse, the process alone could help the GOP win enough seats to recapture the House. The Democratic bill would instead require that the boundaries be drawn by independent commissions.
"Every political player knows what's at stake," said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan good-government group based in Washington. "There is a race between what is going on in Republican state legislatures, and this effort to pass federal rules to protect the right to vote of every eligible citizen."
To Republicans, the proposal amounts to a massive federal intrusion in locally administered elections. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blasted the measure the last time it was up for debate in Congress, calling it the "Democrat Politician Protection Act."
"If this bill were to become law, it would be the largest expansion of the federal government's role in elections that we have ever seen," said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. "The harm to the states' electoral process outweighs the minor burdens imposed on the rights to vote."
The debate over the measure comes in the tumultuous aftermath of the 2020 election, which saw record mail-in voting because of the pandemic. After losing the White House, Trump repeated ad nauseam a false claim that the outcome was due to widespread voter fraud as he sought to overturn President Joe Biden's win.
But there was no widespread fraud, as has been confirmed by election officials across the country and then-Attorney General William Barr. Dozens of legal challenges to the election put forth by Trump and his allies were dismissed, including by the Supreme Court.
Republican-controlled state legislatures, spurred to action by Trump's claims, have nonetheless moved to put in place new voting restrictions in dozens of states, including Abrams' Georgia.
That's where congressional Democrats' effort comes into play.
Citing Congress' constitutional authority to set the time, place and manner of federal elections, Democrats want national rules that they say would make voting more uniform, accessible and fair across the nation. The bill would stymie state GOP efforts by mandating early voting, same-day registration and other long-sought reforms that Republicans reject.
The 791-page measure, which was first introduced two years ago, would also require dark money political groups to disclose anonymous donors, as well as create reporting requirements for online political ads. It would appropriate nearly $2 billion for election infrastructure upgrades. And in a rearview nod at Trump, it would obligate presidents to disclose their tax returns.
Despite staunch GOP opposition, the bill is all but certain to pass the House. But daunting challenges lay 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 current rules to overcome a Republican filibuster -- a tally they are unlikely to reach.
Under pressure from the party's left flank, Democrats have proposed eliminating the filibuster but lack the votes to do so. It's an open question whether Democrats will find ways around that hurdle, potentially by mustering the votes to change the filibuster rules to exempt specific types of legislation -- including those that deal with voting rights.
Given the closing window to pass legislation before 2022, many in the party remain hopeful it will be signed into law by Biden, whose administration has said the bill is a priority.
"We may not get the opportunity to make this change again for many, many decades, so let's not miss that window," said John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who is the bill's lead sponsor. "Shame on us if we don't get this done."