Election reform to return as a priority for Dems in Congress

Voters in line. Photo by John McCosh.

WASHINGTON — Democrats who control Congress by narrow margins and the White House are making a fresh attempt to move forward a massive package that tackles dark money in campaigns, voter suppression and election security.

The architect of the bill, Rep. John Sarbanes, said in an interview that the tumultuous 2020 election was a perfect example of why the U.S. needs reform.

“A lot of people out there feel like their voice isn’t respected,” the Maryland Democrat said. “If we can get these changes in place it’ll create a lot more accountability in our democracy.”

The 791-page bill, known as the For the People Act, was given the bill number of H.R. 1 by House Democrats to signify its importance, and it’s expected to pass the lower chamber for a second time.

But in a Senate split 50-50 between the parties, it’s unlikely to advance without significant new Republican support or an end to the filibuster, which means many bills need 60 votes to end debate and advance toward passage.

The sweeping measure would, among many other things, require states to put in place same-day registration for federal elections and allow 15 days early voting for federal elections; make states pay for postage on ballots and other election materials; and require states to adopt independent redistricting commissions to redraw congressional districts.

On ethics, it lays out new requirements for both Congress and the executive branch, like mandating the public disclosure of tax returns by candidates for president and vice president and barring members of Congress from sitting on the boards of for-profit entities.

No date has been set yet for a vote in the House, where Democratic leaders say they will be working on extending COVID-19 relief in the coming weeks.

Biden support

Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Oregon Democrat who is introducing the Senate version of the House bill, said in pool reports that the election measure is a priority for the Biden administration.

“We have taken a pledge to defend the Constitution, and the foundation of that is access to the ballot,” he said.

He added that he’s concerned about voter suppression tactics by Republicans at the state level, such as enacting strict voter ID laws that disproportionately make it harder for low-income people and people of color to vote.

Just since the presidential election, 28 states have introduced 106 bills aimed at restricting voting, compared to last year when 15 states introduced 35 similar bills restricting voting, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.

Merkley also pointed to the legislation as an argument in favor of eliminating the filibuster.

No Republicans have signed on to the Sarbanes bill as House co-sponsors.

When the bill passed the House on March 8, 2019, no Republican voted for it, and it passed 234-193.

Republican leaders such as Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California have raised strong objections to the bill on the grounds that the federal government is overreaching into how states manage elections.

“It is a federal takeover of our election system,” Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) said on the House floor in 2019 when the bill passed.

McConnell has called it a “terrible proposal” and a “power grab.”

But Sarbanes said states that implemented early and mail-in voting for the 2020 election, because of the pandemic, helped increase voter turnout, and there are provisions in H.R. 1 that would require states to make those voting options available under federal law.

“It turns out that a lot of the things we wanted to see (in H.R. 1) made voting easier,” Sarbanes said.

Driving up turnout

Gilda Daniels, a voting rights expert and professor at the University of Baltimore Law School, said the legislation would make it easier for people to vote and help increase voter turnout. Daniels is also the former deputy chief in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Voting Section.

“We saw in this last election if you give people the opportunity to participate, they will, because people had options,” she said.

She praised the bill’s affirmation to support the restoration of a provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires states and localities with a history of implementing discriminatory voting practices to get federal approval before making changes to voting requirements.

Those nine states required to get federal approval of any voting changes include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, which have a history of using poll taxes, literacy tests and racial violence to suppress Black voters.

In 2013 the Supreme Court found a section in the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional in the case Shelby County v. Holder. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion that voter suppression was not as prevalent as it was in the 1960s and 1970s and “there is no longer such disparity.”

The Supreme Court then instructed Congress to draft a new process to determine how the Voting Rights Act would monitor cities, countries and states based on current data. Democrats are poised to pass that piece of legislation, which is named after the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon, alongside the H.R. 1 package.

“That was John Lewis’ number one effort for years,” Sarbanes said, adding that Lewis worked closely on H.R. 1. “We’re very excited that Lewis’ legacy is very present in H.R. 1.”

Voting rights for ex-felons

The legislative package would also restore the rights of those with felony charges. States have a patchwork of laws on voting rights for  formerly incarcerated people.

In Kentucky and Virginia, those with a felony record are barred from voting.  And in some states like Florida, Tennessee, Iowa and Arizona, some people with felony convictions cannot vote.

“Right now because of felony disenfranchisement, 5.2 million Americans cannot vote,” Bobby Hoffman, advocacy and policy counsel for voting rights at the ACLU, said. “That impacts people of color disproportionately.”

The bill is also designed to curb the effects of another Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed corporations and other dark money groups to spend an unlimited amount of money in elections.  Campaign spending has ballooned, with the two Senate Georgia races in 2020 totaling $833 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A section of the bill sets up a Freedom From Influence Fund, to be used as a federal public financing program for people running for Congress, which matches small donations. Money for that fund would not come from taxpayers, but instead from criminal and civil penalties and settlements from corporations, corporate officers or tax code violators in the top income brackets, Sarbanes said.

For example, if a small donor gives $200 to a congressional candidate, the public fund would match that donation at a 6-to-1 ratio, giving the candidate a total of $1,200.

New York City has this small donor matching system, which helps candidates for state elections raise more money from smaller donations rather than having to rely on super PACS.

“That would be transformative because it would raise the voice of everyday people,” Michael Sozan, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said. “It will allow a much more diverse set of candidates to run.”

Sozan said even though he is worried about the filibuster blocking the package, he still thinks Democrats will be able to pass it despite Senate GOP opposition, especially because it’s a priority for the Biden administration.

“This legislation is a once-in-a-generation package,” he said. “I really think there’s a good chance that big, democracy reform is going to be signed into law.”

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