• The Star Staff

Targeting state restrictions, House passes landmark voting rights expansion

By Nicholas Fandos

House Democrats pushed through a sweeping expansion of federal voting rights Wednesday over unified Republican opposition, opening a new front in a raging national debate about elections aimed at countering GOP attempts to clamp down on ballot access.

The bill, adopted 220-210, mostly along party lines, would constitute the most significant enhancement of federal voting protections since the 1960s if it became law. It aims to impose new national requirements weakening restrictive state voter ID laws, mandate automatic voter registration, expand early and mail-in voting, make it harder to purge voter rolls and restore voting rights to former felons — changes that studies suggest would increase voter participation, especially by racial minorities.

The vote was the latest bid by Democrats to beat back Republican efforts in statehouses across the country to enact new barriers to voting that would consolidate power for the GOP amid false claims of rampant election fraud heralded by former President Donald Trump and many of his allies in Congress.

But the measure, which is supported by President Joe Biden, appears to be doomed for now in the Senate, where Republican opposition would make it all but impossible to draw the 60 votes needed to advance. Democratic leaders have vowed to put it up for a vote anyway, and progressives were already plotting to use Republican obstruction of the bill to build their case for jettisoning the legislative filibuster in the months ahead.

“Everything is at stake. We must win this race, this fight,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said as Democrats rallied on the Capitol steps before the vote. “At the same time as we are gathering here to honor our democracy, across the country over 200 bills are being put together, provisions are being put forward to suppress the vote.”

The 791-page bill, designated HR 1 by Democrats to reflect its importance to their agenda, would also eliminate partisan gerrymandering, impose new transparency on dark money used to finance campaigns, tighten government ethics standards and create a public financing option for congressional campaigns.

The prominence of the debate demonstrated the immense stakes of the fight over election laws, both for how Americans exercise their right to vote and for how both parties aggregate political power. While Congress has worked for decades to expand access to the ballot, often with bipartisan support, the issue has become a sharply partisan one in recent years, as shifting demographics and political coalitions have led Republicans to conclude that they benefit from lower voter participation rates, particularly around cities.

For now, Republicans appear to have the upper hand.

States under conservative control have succeeded in recent years in imposing new strictures that studies suggest disproportionately affect Black voters and those living in urban areas. Proponents argue that the steps are necessary to combat potential election fraud. But the effort has been turbocharged in some places since Trump’s loss in November, with states racing to strengthen voter ID laws, to make it harder to vote by mail or vote early, and to limit the role outside groups can play in helping Americans vote.

And on Tuesday, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court signaled it was likely to uphold two restrictive Arizona election measures and potentially chip away further at the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A 2013 ruling by the justices struck down key enforcement provisions in the law and helped pave the way for the success of many Republican-led states in putting in place new rules.

All told, state lawmakers have introduced more than 250 bills in 43 states that would tighten voting rules, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The most prominent may be Georgia, where Republican leaders reeling from Democrats’ unexpected statewide victories have unabashedly sought to clamp down on ballot access by advancing sharp limits to voting by mail and early voting on Sundays, when many Black voters cast ballots after church services.

HR 1’s voting provisions were originally drafted by Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon who died last year.

If the bill were to become law, states would be required to automatically register eligible voters, hold at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections and provide drop boxes for absentee ballots like the ones Trump falsely claimed led to fraud. It would make it far easier to vote by mail and far harder to purge voters from the rolls.

The legislation also targets partisan gerrymandering of House seats, requiring states to use independent commissions to draw districts based on apolitical metrics rather than ones that would maximize the influence of one party over another. Both parties gerrymander, but the practice has benefited Republicans more over the past decade. With new districts set to be drawn this fall, Republicans are expected to make even greater gains.

Democrats intend to hold a separate vote in the coming months on legislation to restore the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down.

The challenge for Democrats is moving any of the bills through a 50-50 Senate, where 10 Republicans would have to vote yes. Under Trump’s leadership, the Republican Party adopted increasingly hard-line tactics on voting and other government overhaul initiatives, rallying around his winner-take-all political style and the outright lies on which he based his attempt to overturn his election loss.

“This monster must be stopped,” Trump said of the Democratic bill last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “It cannot be allowed to pass.”

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