The Washington Post

Democrats take fight for voting access to Congress

- BY MIKE DEBONIS AND AMY GARDNER

The turbulent debate over the nation’s elections reached Congress’s doorstep this week, with House Democrats poised to pass sweeping nationwide standards for voter access Wednesday just as Republican lawmakers in dozens of states move to restrict polling access after Donald Trump’s November loss.

Both parties have mobilized for the fight in unpreceden­ted ways, reflecting the immense public attention on election issues — thanks to Trump’s months-long campaign of falsehoods and the subsequent attack on the Capitol, as well as the stakes for the 2022 midterm elections.

But it appears unlikely that the matter will be quickly settled at the federal level, with the narrow Democratic Senate majority and firm GOP opposition spelling apparent doom for any type of new voting rights legislatio­n in the near term.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are barreling ahead with major rollbacks of early voting, mail voting and other state provisions that Trump and other Republican­s oppose, while the Supreme Court on Tuesday heard a challenge to Arizona’s election laws that could further curtail the federal government’s power to police elections.

The opposing efforts have created a remarkable split screen between the hurried GOP drive underway in state capitals and the significan­t Democratic push in Washington — with both par

House to pass national standards as GOP pushes major state restrictio­ns

ties seeing election laws as a crucial factor in determinin­g outcomes and as a motivating issue for their base supporters.

House leaders anticipate nearunanim­ous Democratic support — and zero Republican backing — for their bill known as H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, which would overhaul elections, campaign finance and government ethics law. Some liberal lawmakers are pushing to ditch Senate filibuster rules to pass it into law without Republican support.

“What we want to do is clear the air — clear the air of that big, dark money, clear the air of political gerrymande­ring and clear the air of the voter suppressio­n that is out there,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.) said as lawmakers debated amendments to the bill Tuesday. “They know that their issues are losers with the American people. They know that big money and voter suppressio­n is their path to victory, and that’s why they’re engaged in this.”

Meanwhile, Gop-controlled state legislatur­es around the country have been proposing laws that would restrict absentee balloting, early voting and other aspects of election administra­tion that critics say represent a cynical ploy to make it harder primarily for Democratic voters to participat­e.

That effort follows on the heels of Trump’s baseless effort to undermine the 2020 election as rigged and the subsequent storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to thwart a joint session of Congress as it accepted the electoral college results for President Biden.

Among the dozens of state legislatur­es considerin­g sweeping new laws that would restrict voting options, Georgia’s has garnered outsize attention in part because of the state’s leading role in the 2020 election. Trump fixated on his narrow loss there, and while state Republican leaders rebutted accusation­s that fraud had played a role in the outcome, GOP lawmakers say their proposals are needed to restore faith in the election process among Trump supporters.

The state’s House approved a sweeping measure Monday that would limit the use of ballot drop boxes, beef up ID requiremen­ts for mail voting and restrict early voting on weekends — the latter a direct assault, critics said, on Democrats’ long-standing “Souls to the Polls” program to encourage Black voters to cast ballots after church on Sundays.

Trump’s campaign of misinforma­tion built on years of quiet GOP efforts to curtail voting expansion and make election laws a top-tier issue for Republican voters, whose opinion of early voting, mail-in ballots and other provisions to expand access sharply deteriorat­ed last year.

Rep. Richard Hudson (N.C.), a member of the House GOP leadership, said Tuesday that the rapid expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic — sometimes by Democratic legislatur­es, sometimes by appointed election officials, sometimes by judges — fueled doubts in GOP voters’ minds.

“Any honest person could see that they created problems, at least some uncertaint­y, if not outright fraud, and so I think that’s why there’s a heightened awareness of it,” he said.

Voting issues dominated the annual Conservati­ve Political Action Conference this past weekend in Orlando, where presenter after presenter repeated unsubstant­iated and in some cases disproved claims that widespread fraud occurred in November, such as carloads of illegal ballots being dumped at counting facilities.

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has started a Committee on Election Integrity, which began meeting in recent weeks and will act as a clearingho­use for suggestion­s to state GOP committees on how to change U.S. elections, a spokesman said.

Threats to voting laws loom in the courts, as well. The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard a Democratic challenge to two Arizona voting laws that they argue disproport­ionately affect minorities and therefore run afoul of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

While the justices appeared inclined to let those laws stand, the bigger question is what standard the court will ultimately set to interpret the law in the future. Democrats fear that a 6-to-3 conservati­ve court could set a high bar for voting rights litigation, opening up the possibilit­y that states could pursue even more restrictiv­e measures that could harm minority voting.

A GOP lawyer made the matter clear Tuesday, when asked by Justice Amy Coney Barrett why Republican­s intervened in the case to defend a law that would discount voters’ ballots if they are sent to the wrong precinct.

“Because it puts us at a competitiv­e disadvanta­ge relative to Democrats,” responded Michael A. Carvin, representi­ng the Republican Party of Arizona. “Politics is a zero-sum game.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are preparing to litigate against any new state laws that they believe will curtail ballot access. The Department of Justice under Biden is also expected to take a leading role in policing alleged voter suppressio­n across the country.

The Democrats’ legislativ­e answer to the Republican effort is a sprawling 791-page bill that establishe­s national standards for voter access — mandating online registrati­on, voting by mail, at least 15 days of early voting and the restoratio­n of voting rights for released felons. The bill also mandates congressio­nal redistrict­ing be done by independen­t commission­s, requires the disclosure of “dark money” contributi­ons to political groups, and creates a system of public financing for congressio­nal campaigns, among dozens of other provisions.

Republican­s oppose the vast majority of the bill, but when a previous version passed the House two years ago, they put up only token opposition, knowing it was dead on arrival in the Gop-majority Senate and with a Republican president guaranteei­ng it would not be signed into law.

Now, Democrats have a Senate majority — though a precarious one dependent on Vice President Harris’s tiebreakin­g vote — and a president who has signaled he is ready to sign the legislatio­n into law. A White House policy statement Monday said the bill is “urgently needed to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen American democracy.”

Republican­s have responded by redoubling their efforts to paint the bill as a partisan overreach. A Gop-affiliated advocacy group, the American Action Network, launched digital ads and phone campaigns in 51 House districts to undermine the bill.

“We had the backstop before; we have no backstop this time,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-tex.). “I think everybody realizes that this would be a hijacking of the electoral process and a total transforma­tion of the way we hold elections in America.”

In a vivid illustrati­on of the bill’s higher profile, Trump himself made a special mention of the legislatio­n in his 90-minute CPAC address Sunday — his much-anticipate­d return to the political stage.

Trump all but ignored the bill in 2019, but this year he told the crowd of conservati­ve activists that the new version is a “disaster” for Republican­s and highlighte­d provisions such as its eliminatio­n of voter ID requiremen­ts, implementa­tion of automatic voter registrati­on and mandated nonpartisa­n redistrict­ing.

“This monster must be stopped,” he said. “It cannot be allowed to pass.”

Democrats have taken the opposite lesson from 2020, and party leaders say they are more determined than ever to act and create national standards of ballot access. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-minn.), chair of the Senate Rules and Administra­tion Committee and a key advocate of the election package, said lawmakers had to counter the state-level Republican salvos on a national basis.

“Instead of redefining their party and figuring out what legislatio­n and policies they can put forward that would appeal to more people — so they wouldn’t lose states like Georgia and Arizona — they have chosen to just resorting to changing the rules of the game,” she said.

While the For the People Act has near-universal buy-in from Democrats, it still faces a serious obstacle in the Senate — where the majority’s will can be frustrated by a minority filibuster, a roadblock that requires a 60-vote supermajor­ity to clear.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mcconnell (R-KY.) made clear in a floor speech last week that the GOP would fight hard to block the bill, accusing Democrats of trying to “tilt the playing field in their side’s favor” and “unilateral­ly rewrite and nationaliz­e election law.”

“Because it puts us at a competitiv­e disadvanta­ge relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game.” Michael A. Carvin, an attorney representi­ng the Republican Party of Arizona in a Supreme Court case, when asked by a justice why his clients are defending a law that would discount voters’ ballots if they are sent to the wrong precinct

 ?? JOSHUA LOTT/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? A man delivers digital cards that contain ballots from Georgia’s Senate runoffs in January. The state’s Gop-controlled House passed a bill Monday that toughens restrictio­ns on absentee and early voting.
JOSHUA LOTT/THE WASHINGTON POST A man delivers digital cards that contain ballots from Georgia’s Senate runoffs in January. The state’s Gop-controlled House passed a bill Monday that toughens restrictio­ns on absentee and early voting.

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