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Election Reform Facing Republican Impasse in Polarized Senate

March 29, 2021 by Reece Nations
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Democratic Caucus gather to address reporters on H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. House Democrats are expected to pass a sweeping elections and ethics bill, offering it up as a powerful counterweight to voting rights restrictions advancing in Republican-controlled statehouses. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans have painted their Democratic colleagues’ push for election reform legislation as a devastating grab for power ahead of its consideration for passage in the Senate. 

The bill, entitled the “For the People Act of 2021,” seeks to overhaul the existing elections process by standardizing automatic voter registration, restoring the voting rights of individuals who have completed felony sentences, and allows for sworn statements for individuals affirming their citizenship if they are unable to produce necessary identification to vote, among other measures. 

President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass the bill after state lawmakers in Georgia passed a bill that imposes stricter voter identification requirements for absentee balloting, limits vote-by-mail drop boxes and eliminates the secretary of state from chairing the Board of Elections. The Georgia bill also authorizes the state legislature to appoint members to the state elections board and bolsters its authority over county elections boards. 

“This law, like so many others being pursued by Republicans in statehouses across the country is a blatant attack on the Constitution and good conscience,” Biden said in a written statement in reference to the Georgia law. “This is Jim Crow in the 21st Century. It must end. We have a moral and Constitutional obligation to act.” 

Republicans maintained the federal elections reform bill overrules existing checks and balances designed to limit voter fraud and fortify election security during a Senate Committee on Rules and Administration hearing last week. While the bill’s proponents during the hearing argued the bill made significant strides in election transparency by mandating organizations to disclose large donors, its opponents contended it usurped states’ rights by imposing provisions that are costly and hard to implement. 

The House of Representatives passed the bill along party lines by a margin of 220-210, with every Democrat voting in favor and every Republican opposed. Passing the bill in the narrowly divided Senate will be impossible without outside support from Republicans. 

“Under this bill, there’s automatic registration of anybody — if you get a driver’s license, if you get a welfare payment, if you get an unemployment payment, if you attend a public university,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in opposition to the bill during the hearing. “Now, everyone knows there are millions of illegal aliens who have driver’s licenses, who are getting welfare benefits, who attend public universities.” 

During the hearing, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner also expressed concerns about the automatic voter registration provisions that would add individuals as young as 16 years of age to voter rolls. Doing so “overrules checks and balances in our election security,” he said, although 23 states allowed individuals under 18 years old to preregister to vote as of February 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

However, the act does not amend current laws prohibiting undocumented immigrants from voting in federal elections. Although the bill does require each state to adopt automatic registration systems, it clarifies only legal citizens are eligible for registration. 

In March 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union circulated a letter in opposition to a previous incarnation of the bill, urging lawmakers to strike down the effort. In his testimony at the hearing, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted the ACLU’s prior opposition to the “For The People Act of 2019,” although the letter in question called the bill “the beginning of a sustained effort to reform and improve our democracy,” which was unlikely to pass in the formerly Republican-led Senate. 

The ACLU commended the previous bill’s commitment to restoring protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which were dampened by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder to disable the federal preclearance process. 

The current bill also obligates states to adopt independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional districts and fortifies enforcement of federal ethics law, TWN previously reported. These and other provisions are a response to state-led efforts to overhaul their own voting systems and intend to create nation-wide uniformity in the process. 

“At its core, the For the People Act is about three simple ideas: making voting easier, getting big money out of politics, and strengthening ethics rules,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., chair of the Senate rules and administration committee. “These are not radical proposals. These are ideas that nearly everyone in this country agrees with. And with this bill, we can make them a reality and ensure that Americans have a democracy that works for them.” 

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