House Democrats on Wednesday night approved a sweeping voting rights and government ethics bill that seeks to expand voting access and make campaign finance more transparent. The nearly 800-page bill, which would overhaul key areas of elections administration, faces steeper odds in the closely divided Senate.
“It establishes all the best practices and standards that we want to see when it comes to how people register and vote in America,” Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, the chief sponsor of the bill known as H.R. 1, said during a conference call Tuesday. “And we have the opportunity to get it done.”
The legislation is advancing as Republicans in statehouses around the country are pushing for dozens of new restrictions on voting after record turnout in the 2020 election, which federal officials in President Donald Trump’s administration called “the most secure in American history.”
The turnout handed Democrats control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, and helped Republicans expand their majorities in statehouses. It also spurred Republicans, led by Trump, to repeatedly make false claims about a rigged election and call for new restrictions on early and absentee voting.
The House passed a similar voting rights bill in 2019. Unlike then, Democrats now control the evenly split Senate, but the legislation still faces difficult odds.
Sarbanes acknowledged that the barriers ahead in the Senate “are tricky.” Some Democrats are pushing for an end to the filibuster rule that requires a 60-vote majority for most legislation, but there does not appear to be enough support within the party at this time. Sarbanes said there is a “powerful” sense that the opportunity to enact such expansive voting protections may not be there in the future.
“The general environment and atmosphere that this change is coming forward in, this bill is being presented in, increases the chances that we can get it over the finish line,” he said. “Exactly how that gets done, I’m not going to pre-judge. But I think it can happen, and I think it can happen early enough in this election cycle that many of these important changes can be implemented in time for the 2022 midterms.”
The bill has several provisions aimed at standardizing rules across states to make it easier to vote, including expanding early and absentee voting. The legislation would allow for online and same-day voter registration and would make voter registration automatic when a person interacts with a government agency like a department of motor vehicles, unless they opt out. The bill would also require super PACs and other organizations that spend money in elections or judicial nominations to disclose more information about donors who give more than $10,000 during an election cycle.
Republicans in state legislatures are targeting several of the same provisions but with a potentially opposite effect: more restrictions for when and how people can vote, and in some cases new identification requirements. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that as of February 19, more than 250 bills in 43 states have been carried over, prefiled or introduced that, in their view, would make it harder to vote.
Some voting bills have advanced quickly in statehouses in recent weeks. In Iowa, the Republican-controlled legislature had back-to-back votes late last month on a bill that would shorten the number of early voting days in the state and add new restrictions around when and how mail-in ballots can be returned. The measure has been sent to the governor’s office.
In Georgia, Republicans who control the statehouse have introduced several major election bills. On Monday, the state House passed a bill that, in its current form, would add new restrictions around absentee voting and restrict weekend voting ahead of Election Day. That comes days after the state Senate passed a separate elections bill that would add identification requirements for absentee voting.
Voting advocates say some provisions, such as limiting weekend early voting in Georgia, appear to be aimed directly at Black voters. Trump has falsely argued that fraud in cities, with large numbers of voters of color, cost him the election. The former president and some Republicans have said explicitly that making it easier for Americans to vote would mean they would lose elections. Black voters and other voters of color were among key voting blocs in swing states like Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania, where President Joe Biden defeated Trump.
Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United and its affiliate Let America Vote, said more federal oversight of elections is needed.
“Look, it is the federal government’s duty to step in and to protect people’s constitutional right to vote. And right now what we’re seeing is discriminatory voter suppression methods across the country,” she said. “The federal government absolutely needs to step in and say, “No, we’re going to have a fair and free and secure democracy.’ And that starts with making sure that everyone can vote, making sure it is easier not harder to vote, that we end partisan gerrymandering and that we get money out of politics.”
In many states, it’s already harder for some people of color to vote. Research published in 2017 by Stephen Pettigrew, a data scientist and political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, showed that voters in predominantly minority neighborhoods are three times as likely to wait longer than 30 minutes in line to vote and six times as likely to wait more than an hour. More recent research by Pettigrew indicates those wait times have an effect: For every additional hour a voter waits in line to vote, their probability of voting in the next election drops by one percentage point.
Courts repeatedly found after the 2020 election that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud; more than 40 lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign and allies were later dismissed in court. The idea that the election was stolen from Trump led his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol on January 6, causing the deaths of at least five people. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted at the end of January and early February showed that although 59 percent of Americans said they do not believe there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, nearly three-quarters of Republicans said they did.
A more conservative U.S. Supreme Court is also considering the future of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark legislation that prohibits racial discriminiation in voting laws. In 2013, the high court effectively gutted a part of the law that required certain states with a history of racial discriminiation to get approval from the federal government before changing election laws; on Tuesday, justices heard oral arguments over a case that could alter another part of the law intended to protect racial minorities’ right to vote.
The White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, released a statement Monday expressing support for H.R. 1. Several organizations that support the bill are rallying around it through public campaigns.
“We know that this bill is needed because Washington has never been more broken. People are being told by their elected leaders to doubt the security of our elections,” said Muller with End Citizens United and Let America Vote. “We saw a mob storm the U.S. Capitol. And too often, special interest and big money are setting the policy agenda in D.C. So now’s the moment to make changes needed to really restore and strengthen our democracy.”
Republicans in Congress who oppose the legislation argue it effectively gives the federal government more control of the country’s elections system. Others claimed in tweets leading up to the vote that it would benefit the Democratic Party.
Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, who objected to certifying the legitimate results of the 2020 election, expressed opposition to several proposals in the bill, including the creation of a public financing program that supporters say would help candidates who cannot raise large amounts of money to run for office. Democrats have specified that the program would not use taxpayer dollars.
“The Democrats are trying to tip the scales of elections to their party,” Biggs said from the House floor this week.
The American Action Network, a conservative super PAC, has begun funding ad campaigns that target House lawmakers who support the bill. The group is run by the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC that helps Republican House candidates.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also expressed concern with provisions in the bill around campaign disclosure rules, though the organization also supports several of the bill’s proposals around voting.
Norman Eisen is counsel for the Voter Protection Program, an organization that is working with state and federal officials to support policy that they believe strengthens elections. Eisen said people should not discount the public support around codifying voter protections as Republicans continue to push false claims about widespread voter fraud.
“We need to keep an open mind as to what will happen next in the Senate, but anybody who is prematurely predicting the demise of this critical bill is not paying attention to all the evidence,” he said.
Other provisions in H.R. 1 and S. 1 (also titled the For the People Act of 2021):
- Adds language aimed at ensuring voters have at least 14 days of early voting.
- Curbs the practice of removing registered voters from rolls.
- Restores voting rights for people who were previously incarcerated.
- Creates independent commissions to determine congressional redistricting in an effort to stop partisanship in the map drawing process.
- Adds rules to how super PACs function in an effort to further prevent coordination with candidates.
- Requires more transparency around digital advertisements.
- Creates a voluntary public finance program for candidates, with a matching component for small-dollar donations. The program relies in part on corporate penalties to pay for it and not individual taxpayer money.
- Requires candidates for president and vice president to disclose their individual tax returns and certain business tax returns.