The battle over voting rights in Congress


The Democrats’ first order of business as they took control of the 116th Congress was introducing H.R. 1, the colossal “For the People Act.” This 571-page bill covering voting rights, campaign finance reform, ethics improvements, and more.

Election law expert Rick Hasen wrote of H.R. 1, The House Democrats’ Colossal Election Reform Bill Could Save American Democracy:

By beginning with election reform as “H.R. 1,” Democrats signaled their priorities as they took over control of the House of Representatives. The bill now has 221 co-sponsors, all Democrats, including almost every Democrat in the House. It’s disheartening that bipartisan movement on election reform is no longer possible and that few of the significant improvements in the bill stand a chance of becoming law until Democrats have control of the Senate and the presidency. Even then some of its provisions could be blocked by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court. But if and when Democrats ever do return to full power in Washington, H.R. 1 should remain the top priority. Though there is room for some improvements, the “For the People Act” would go an enormous way toward repairing our badly broken democracy.

There’s a lot packed into the introductory version of the bill, much of it a wish list for voting rights advocates and election reformers. The summary put out by the office of Rep. John Sarbanes, one of the lead proponents of the bill, goes on for 22 pages. Among the provisions affecting voting and voting rights are those requiring online voter registration, automatic voter registration, and same-day registration for voting in federal elections; a requirement to use independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional districts in each state; limitations on voter purges; an end to felon disenfranchisement for federal elections; protection against intimidation and false information surrounding elections; improved access to voting by persons with disabilities; a set of improved cybersecurity standards around voting and voting systems, including a requirement that all voting systems produce a paper trail for auditing and checking results; and a ban on a state’s chief election officer engaging in political activities connected to federal offices.

The provisions in H.R. 1 related to campaign finance would expand disclosure rules to cover ads on the internet, a step that is necessary to better track attempted foreign influence over elections; establish a small-donor multiple match public financing system for Congress and a similar fix to the now-moribund presidential public financing system; create a pilot program for the use of campaign finance vouchers in congressional elections, a move I have long supported; enact a new set of rules to make sure that super PACs do not coordinate with candidates; and reconfigure the Federal Election Commission, with an odd number of commissioners and a requirement that at least one of the commissioners not be a Democrat or Republican. The ethics provisions would require the Supreme Court to be bound by an ethics code, strengthen conflict of interest laws, and require presidential and vice presidential candidates to release 10 years of tax returns.

The bill also contains nods toward additional reforms. There’s a statement about the need to fix the parts of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court killed in the 2013 opinion in Shelby County v. Holder. (Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, is expected to introduce a stand-alone bill on this subject.) There is a portion declaring support for D.C. statehood and for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case freeing corporate money in elections.

There’s no question that H.R. 1, if it passes the House, will go nowhere in the upper chamber. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an ardent opponent of laws regulating money in politics, told the New York Times that he believes much of the law is “probably” unconstitutional. I expect few, if any, Republicans to co-sponsor this legislation.

Which leads to the Washington Post last week giving op-ed space to “The Enemy of The People,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who offered a hyper-partisan dismissal of any need for election law reforms and securing voting rights. Mitch McConnell: Behold the Democrat Politician Protection Act. The man is truly rotten to his core being.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos responds to McConnell’s Criticisms of H.R. 1:

It’s not interesting that Mitch McConnell isn’t a fan of H.R. 1. He was the lead plaintiff against the last major campaign finance reforms that Congress passed. So of course he isn’t going to like H.R. 1’s heightened disclosure requirements, its efforts to unmask dark money, its public financing for congressional campaigns, and so on. These are exactly the kinds of measures that McConnell has railed against for his entire career.

What is interesting about McConnell’s op-ed is his complete inability to support his claim that H.R. 1 is a Democratic power grab—the “Democrat Politician Protection Act,” as the column’s headline puts it. McConnell’s lead example is that H.R. 1 would shrink the FEC from six commissioners to five. But this change wouldn’t benefit Democrats; it would help whichever party happens to control the presidency, and so is able to appoint three of the five commissioners. If Trump is reelected in 2020, the FEC would be “weaponized” in favor of Republicans (though no more so than any other independent agency with an odd number of members).

McConnell’s other examples of covert Democratic intent are H.R. 1’s new disclosure rules, its multiple-match public financing system, and its restrictions on voter purges. Again, though, there’s no explanation why these provisions are secretly partisan. If disclosure really “intimidates” donors and makes them “vulnerable to public harassment,” then Democrats—who gave about fifty percentmore than Republicans in the 2018 election—have more to fear. Similarly, public financing makes elections more competitive, but it doesn’t have any partisan valence. And voter purges can erroneously remove Republicans from the rolls as easily as Democrats.

The other interesting thing about McConnell’s op-ed is what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t even mention many of the proposals at the heart of H.R. 1: registering voters automatically, expanding early voting, building a record for a new VRA coverage formula, requiring independent redistricting commissions, improving election security, tightening ethics rules, and so on. I highly doubt that McConnell actually backs these ideas; he certainly hasn’t brought any of them to the Senate floor. But it’s telling that he can’t bring himself to publicly attack them. Evidently, most of H.R. 1 is so appealing—so plainly right—that even McConnell can’t explicitly denounce it.

Support volunteer citizen journalism at the Blog for Arizona with a donation today. Your secure contribution keeps the Blog online and sustains a free press in Arizona.