WASHINGTON (AP) – Stacey Abrams, whose voting rights work helped turn Georgia into an undecided state, urged Congress Thursday to reject the “outright lies” that have historically restricted access to the ballot when Democrats they began to push for radical reform of the elections and ethics laws.
“A disguised lie in the seductive lure of electoral integrity has weakened access to democracy for millions,” said Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost the Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018, during a committee hearing for the bill law, which was introduced as HR 1 to signal its importance to the party’s agenda.
Democrats feel the urgency to enact the legislation before the 2022 midterm elections, when their narrow majorities in the House and Senate will be at risk. The bill, which has been championed by good governance groups, is advancing against a backdrop of Republican-controlled states exploiting former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen 2020 election to push through legislation that would make voting more difficult. Democrats argue that voters of color, a key constituency for the party, would be disproportionately affected.
It also comes on the cusp of a redesign of Congressional districts once in a decade, a highly partisan affair that is generally controlled by state legislatures. With Republicans controlling the majority of the House of Representatives, the process alone could help the Republican Party win enough seats to regain the House. Instead, the Democratic bill would require the boundaries to be drawn by independent commissions.
“All political actors know what is at stake,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington-based nonpartisan governance group. “There is a race between what is happening in the Republican state legislatures and this effort to pass federal rules to protect the right to vote for all eligible citizens.”
For Republicans, the proposal amounts to a massive federal intrusion into locally run elections. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Criticized the measure the last time it was debated in Congress, calling it a “Democratic Politician Protection Act.”
“If this bill were signed into law, it would be the largest expansion of the federal government’s role in elections that we have ever seen,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Illinois. “The damage to the electoral process of the states exceeds the minor burdens imposed on the right to vote.”
The debate over the measure comes in the wake of the tumultuous aftermath of the 2020 elections, which saw record mailings due to the pandemic. After losing the White House, Trump repeated ad nauseam a false claim that the result was due to widespread electoral fraud as he sought to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory.
But there was no widespread fraud, as confirmed by election officials across the country and then-Attorney General William Barr. Dozens of legal challenges to the election filed by Trump and his allies were thrown out, including by the Supreme Court.
Nonetheless, Republican-controlled state legislatures, driven to take action by Trump’s claims, have moved to implement new voting restrictions in dozens of states, including Abrams’s in Georgia.
That’s where the effort by Congressional Democrats comes in.
Citing the constitutional authority of Congress to set the time, place, and form of federal elections, Democrats want national rules that they say would make voting more uniform, accessible, and fair across the country. The bill would hamper state Republican efforts by mandating early voting, same-day registration and other long-sought reforms that Republicans reject.
The 791-page measure, which was first introduced two years ago, would also require dark money political groups to disclose anonymous donors, as well as create reporting requirements for online political ads. It would leverage nearly $ 2 billion for electoral infrastructure upgrades. And in a rear-view nod to Trump, he would force presidents to reveal their tax returns.
Despite strong opposition from the Republican Party, the bill will likely pass the House. But overwhelming challenges lie ahead in the Senate, which is 50% split between Republicans and Democrats. In some laws, only 51 votes are needed to pass, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker.
In a deeply divisive bill like this, they would need 60 votes under current Senate rules to overcome Republican filibuster, a tally they are unlikely to hit.
Under pressure from the party’s left flank, Democrats have proposed to remove obstructionism, but lack the votes to do so. It’s an open question whether Democrats will find ways to get around that hurdle, potentially rallying the votes to change the obstruction rules to exempt specific types of legislation, including those dealing with voting rights.
Given the closing window to pass the legislation before 2022, many in the party are hopeful that Biden will enact it, whose administration has said the bill is a priority.
“We may not have the opportunity to make this change again for many, many decades, so let’s not miss that window,” said John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the bill. “What a shame if we don’t do this!”