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Voting rights intensify as partisan battleground, with Democrats pushing H.R. 1 and Republicans altering election procedures at state level

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 3/10/2021 Associated Press
Stacey Abrams posing for the camera © Handout/Getty Images
ASSOCIATED PRESS

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

December 2020: 106 congressional Republicans join 17 state attorneys general in support of Texas suit to overturn election results in Ga., Mich., Pa., Wis.

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.

See: Georgia House passes Republican bill rolling back voting access

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.”

Opinion (November 2018):  Trump has his post-midterms excuses all prepared

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.

The U.S. is also 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 now controlling the majority of statehouses, 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.

Previous debates over voting rights have often been esoteric and complex, with much of the debate in Congress focused on whether to restore a “preclearance” process in the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court invalidated in 2013. For decades, it had required certain states and jurisdictions with large minority populations and a history of discrimination to get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures.

But Republicans say that Trump’s repeated attacks on the 2020 election have electrified his supporters, despite dozens of courts and even Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, finding them to lack merit. GOP lawmakers, including Josh Hawley when he became the first senator to announce he would support House Republican objections to state election results, have in turn defended actions critics call antidemocratic by saying they were voicing the concerns of constituents about the 2020 election’s legitimacy.

Opinion (November 2020): Why Trump’s false claims about election fraud resonate so strongly with his supporters

“This is now a base issue,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and Trump administration official in the Department of Homeland Security who is leading a conservative coalition opposed to the bill. “Democratic leadership is willing to sacrifice their own members to pass radical legislation. They are cannon fodder that Nancy Pelosi doesn’t care about.”

Cuccinelli is overseeing a $5 million campaign aimed at pressuring Senate Democrats to oppose the bill.

Democrats say their aim is to make it easier for more people to vote, regardless of partisan affiliation. And they counter that Republican objections are based more in preserving their own power by hindering minorities from voting than a principled opposition.

“The antidemocratic forces in the Republican Party have focused their energy on peddling unwarranted and expensive voter-restriction measures,” said Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her 2018 Georgia bid to become the first Black female governor in U.S. history, losing narrowly to a Republican in control of that election’s conduct as the state attorney general.

“We all have a right to take our seat at the table,” said Abrams, “and our place at the ballot box.”

H.R. 1 emerged as an object of intense focus at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., a recent gathering where Trump’s lies about mass election fraud took center stage.

In his keynote speech at CPAC, Trump branded the bill “a disaster” and a “monster” that “cannot be allowed to pass.”

From the archives (April 2020): Trump, Republicans resist calls for widespread use of mail-in ballots as coronavirus pandemic persists

Meanwhile, CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp told attendees that if they could internalize one thing from this year’s conference, it was to “do all you can” to stop “this unconstitutional power grab” from becoming law.

“What we saw this election will be what you will see every single election. And we have to fight it,” Schlapp warned ominously.

Trump and his allies have made false claims that the 2020 election was marred by widespread voter fraud. But the dozens of legal challenges they put forth were dismissed, including by the Supreme Court, which again this week chose not to take up a Trump challenge to Biden’s narrow win in Wisconsin.

The repetition of the claims by Trump and legal representatives Rudy Giuliani, L. Lin Wood and Sidney Powell has cemented unease about voter fraud in Trump loyalists’ minds — a factor that Republicans have welcomed as leverage as they argue for sometimes draconian new restrictions on voting processes and eligibility.

See: Trump rages at Supreme Court for rejecting Texas election lawsuit

Also see: Trump, on audio tape, presses Georgia official to ‘find’ more votes

Even Mike Pence, less than two months after being stalked at the Capitol by pro-Trump rioters who believed he had let them down in proceeding with the certification of Biden’s election, has moved on to reciting in a Heritage Foundation op-ed the claim that “significant voting irregularities” marred the November election.

Ultimately, though, the biggest obstacle Democrats face in passing the bill is themselves.

Despite staunch GOP opposition, the bill’s passage in the House was in little doubt. But challenges lie ahead in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, including the two independents who caucus with 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.

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Some have discussed options like lowering the threshold to break a filibuster, or creating a workaround that would allow some legislation to be exempt, an exception Senate Republicans under Mitch McConnell came to rely upon to approve nominations to the federal bench, including, notably, Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. Democratic congressional aides say conversations are fluid but underway.

Many in the party remain hopeful, and the Biden White House has called H.R. 1 “landmark legislation” that “is urgently needed to protect the right to vote.” But the window to pass it before the 2022 midterms is already closing.

“We may not get the opportunity to make this change again for many, many decades,” said Sarbanes, the bill’s lead sponsor. “Shame on us if we don’t get this done.”

MarketWatch contributed.

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