Chicago Tribune (Sunday)

Dems zero in on fed­eral elec­tion stan­dards bill

Party says rules would make vot­ing more uni­form, fair

- By Christina A. Cassidy US Elections · U.S. News · US Politics · Politics · Elections · Democratic Party (United States) · United States of America · Donald Trump · Republican Party (United States) · Amy Klobuchar · Minnesota · United States Senate · Mitch McConnell · Kentucky · Maryland · Congress of the United States · Joe Biden · Joe · Pennsylvania · William P. Barr · Alabama · John Merrill · For the People · McConnell · Democrat · John Sarbanes · Weiser, ID · Brennan Center for Justice · Merrill

Democrats plan to move quickly on one of the first bills of the new Congress, cit­ing the need for fed­eral elec­tion stan­dards and other re­forms to shore up the foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can democ­racy af­ter a tu­mul­tuous post-elec­tion pe­riod and deadly riot at the U.S. Capi­tol.

States have long had dis­parate and con­tra­dic­tory rules for run­ning elec­tions. But the 2020 elec­tion, which fea­tured pan­demic-re­lated changes to ease vot­ing and then a flood of law­suits by for­mer Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his al­lies, un­der­scored the dif­fer­ences from state to state.

Democrats, as­sert­ing con­sti­tu­tion­alau­thor­i­ty­toset the time, place and man­ner of fed­eral elec­tions, want na­tional rules they say would make vot­ing more uni­form, ac­ces­si­ble and fair across the na­tion. The bill would man­date early vot­ing, same­day reg­is­tra­tion and other long-sought re­forms that Repub­li­cans re­ject as fed­eral over­reach.

“We have just lit­er­ally seen an at­tack on our own democ­racy,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., re­fer­ring to the Jan. 6 riot. “I can­not think of a more timely mo­ment to start mov­ing on democ­racy re­form.”

The leg­is­la­tion first in­tro­duced two years ago, known as the For the Peo­ple Act, also would give in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sions the job of draw­ing con­gres­sional dis­tricts, re­quire po­lit­i­cal groups to dis­close high-dol­lar donors, cre­ate re­port­ing re­quire­ments for on­line po­lit­i­cal ads and ob­li­gate pres­i­dents to dis­close their tax re­turns.

Repub­li­can op­po­si­tion was fierce dur­ing the last ses­sion. At the time, then-Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell, R-Ky., la­beled it the “Demo­crat Politi­cian Pro­tec­tion Act” and said in an op-ed that Democrats were seek­ing to “change the rules of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics to ben­e­fit one party.”

While Democrats con­trol Congress for the first time in a decade, the mea­sure’s fate de­pends on whether enough Repub­li­cans can be per­suaded to re­con­sider a bill they have re­peat­edly re­jected. If not, Democrats could de­cide to take the dif­fi­cult step of elim­i­nat­ing the Se­nate fil­i­buster, a pro­ce­dural tool of­ten used by the mi­nor­ity party to block bills un­der rules that re­quire 60 votes to ad­vance leg­is­la­tion.

Ad­vo­cates say the bill is the most con­se­quen­tial piece of vot­ing leg­is­la­tion since the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965. House Democrats rein­tro­duced the bill this month as H.R. 1, un­der­scor­ing its im­por­tance to the party.

“Peo­ple just want to be able to cast their vote with­out it be­ing an or­deal,” said Rep. John Sar­banes, D-Md., who is the lead spon­sor of the House bill. “It’s crazy in Amer­ica that you still have to nav­i­gate an ob­sta­cle course to get to the bal­lot box.”

Cur­rent plans would have the full House take up the bill as soon as the first week of Fe­bru­ary. The Se­nate Rules Com­mit­tee would then con­sider a com­pan­ion bill in­tro­duced in the Se­nate, and a tie vote there could al­low it to move out of com­mit­tee and to the floor as early as next month, said Klobuchar, who is ex­pected to be­come the com­mit­tee’s next chair.

A quick vote would be re­mark­able con­sid­er­ing the Se­nate also is likely to be jug­gling Trump’s im­peach­ment trial, con­fir­ma­tion of Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den’s Cab­i­net choices and an­other round of coro­n­avirus re­lief.

While states have long had dif­fer­ent vot­ing pro­ce­dures, the Novem­ber 2020 elec­tion high­lighted how the vari­abil­ity could be used to sow doubt about the out­come. The bill’s sup­port­ers, which in­clude na­tional vot­ing and civil rights or­ga­ni­za­tions, cited dozens of pre­elec­tion law­suits that chal­lenged pro­ce­dural rules, such as whether bal­lots post­marked on Elec­tion Day should count.

They also pointed to the post-elec­tion lit­i­ga­tion Trump and his al­lies filed to try to get mil­lions of le­git­i­mately cast bal­lots tossed out. Many of those law­suits tar­geted elec­tion changes in­tended to make vot­ing eas­ier. That in­cluded a Penn­syl­va­nia law the state’s Repub­li­can-led leg­is­la­ture passed be­fore the pan­demic to make ab­sen­tee bal­lots avail­able to all reg­is­tered vot­ers upon re­quest.

Govern­ment and elec­tion of­fi­cials re­peat­edly have de­scribed the elec­tion as the most se­cure in U.S. his­tory. Even for­mer U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Bill Barr, a Trump ally, said be­fore leav­ing his post that there was no ev­i­dence of wide­spread fraud that would over­turn the re­sult.

“The strat­egy of ly­ing about voter fraud, dele­git­imiz­ing the elec­tion out­come and try­ing to sup­press votes has been un­masked for the il­le­git­i­mate at­tack on our democ­racy that it is, and I think that it opens a lot more doors to real con­ver­sa­tions about how to fix our vot­ing sys­tem and root out this cancer,” said Wendy Weiser, head of the democ­racy pro­gram at the Brennan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, a pub­lic pol­icy in­sti­tute.

But Repub­li­can of­fi­cials like Alabama Sec­re­tary of State John Mer­rill re­main op­posed. Mer­rill said the fed­eral govern­ment’s role is lim­ited and that states must be al­lowed to in­no­vate and im­ple­ment their own vot­ing rules.

“Those de­ci­sions are best left up to the states, and I think the states are the ones that should de­ter­mine what course of ac­tion they should take,” Mer­rill said, not­ing that Alabama has in­creased voter reg­is­tra­tion and par­tic­i­pa­tion with­out im­ple­ment­ing early vot­ing.

 ?? ELISE AMENDOLA/AP ?? Elec­tion of­fi­cials sort ab­sen­tee and early vot­ing bal­lots for count­ing in Novem­ber in­side Bos­ton City Hall. The For the Peo­ple Act would re­quire states to of­fer early vot­ing, same-day reg­is­tra­tion and the op­tion of ab­sen­tee vot­ing for all reg­is­tered vot­ers.
ELISE AMENDOLA/AP Elec­tion of­fi­cials sort ab­sen­tee and early vot­ing bal­lots for count­ing in Novem­ber in­side Bos­ton City Hall. The For the Peo­ple Act would re­quire states to of­fer early vot­ing, same-day reg­is­tra­tion and the op­tion of ab­sen­tee vot­ing for all reg­is­tered vot­ers.

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