The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY)

Democratic voting bill would make biggest changes in decades

- By Brian Slodysko

Democrats and Republican­s can agree on one thing: If signed into law, it would usher in the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections law in at least a generation.

WASHINGTON » As Congress begins debate this week on sweeping voting and ethics legislatio­n, Democrats and Republican­s can agree on one thing: If signed into law, it would usher in the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections law in at least a generation.

House Resolution 1, Democrats’ 791-page bill, would touch virtually every aspect of the electoral process — striking down hurdles to voting erected in the name of election security, curbing partisan gerrymande­ring and curtailing the influence of big money in politics.

Republican­s see those very measures as threats that would both limit the power of states to conduct elections and ultimately benefit Democrats, notably with higher turnout among minority voters.

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.”

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.

Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who sponsored the bill, said that outside of Congress “these aren’t controvers­ial reforms.” Much of it, he noted, was derived from recommenda­tions of a bipartisan commission.

Yet to many Republican­s, it amounts to an unwarrante­d federal intrusion into a process that states should control.

Rep. Rodney Davis, Rill., excoriated the measure during a House hearing last week as “800 pages of election mandates and free speech regulation­s” that poses a “threat to democracy” and would “weaken voter confidence” in elections.

Citing Congress’ constituti­onal authority over federal elections, 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 reject.

It would also require socalled 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 former President Donald Trump refused to do.

Debate over the bill comes at a critical moment, particular­ly for Democrats.

Acting on Trump’s repeated false claims of a stolen election, dozens of Republican-controlled state legislatur­es are pushing bills that would make it more difficult to vote. Democrats argue this would disproport­ionately hit low-income voters, or those of color, who are critical constituen­cies for their party.

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 controllin­g the majority of statehouse­s the process alone could help the GOP win enough seats to recapture the House.

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, even as courts and his last attorney general, William Barr, found them without merit.

“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.”

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 anti-democratic 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. “We all have a right to take our seat at the table and our place at the ballot box.”

The bill was an object of intense focus at the annual Conservati­ve Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, over the weekend, a gathering where Trump’s lies about mass election fraud took center stage.

In a speech Sunday, Trump branded the bill as “a disaster” and a “monster” that “cannot be allowed to pass.”

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 dozens of legal challenges they put forth were dismissed, including by the Supreme Court.

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

Despite staunch GOP opposition, the bill is all but certain to pass the House when it’s scheduled for a floor vote Wednesday. But challenges lay ahead in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republican­s and 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.

Some have discussed options like lowering the threshold to break a filibuster, or creating a workaround that would allow some legislatio­n to be exempt. Democratic congressio­nal aides say the conversati­ons are fluid, but underway.

Many in the party remain hopeful, and Biden’s administra­tion has said the bill is a priority. But the window to pass legislatio­n before the 2022 midterms is 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.”

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 ?? JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO—ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A bicyclist stops to admire the red, white and blue lights illuminati­ng San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco, Calif., Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. Congress is beginning debate on the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections law in a generation. Legislatio­n from Democrats would touch virtually every aspect of the electoral process — striking down hurdles to voting, curbing partisan gerrymande­ring and curtailing big money in politics. Republican­s see those very measures as a threat that would limit the power of states to conduct elections and ultimately benefit Democrats.
JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO—ASSOCIATED PRESS A bicyclist stops to admire the red, white and blue lights illuminati­ng San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco, Calif., Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. Congress is beginning debate on the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections law in a generation. Legislatio­n from Democrats would touch virtually every aspect of the electoral process — striking down hurdles to voting, curbing partisan gerrymande­ring and curtailing big money in politics. Republican­s see those very measures as a threat that would limit the power of states to conduct elections and ultimately benefit Democrats.

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