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, R-Ill., 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 so-called 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. The Democratic bill would instead require that the boundaries be drawn by independent commissions.
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.”