The House of Representatives passed a sweeping voting rights and government ethics bill that would constitute the single-largest piece of election protection legislation since the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, if adopted into law.
HR 1, or the For The People Act, would standardise voting access at the federal level, eliminate long-standing barriers to voting and allow candidates with smaller platforms to wield more political power.
The legislation, which passed 220-210 on a party lines, mandates automatic voter registration, at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections, and mail-in voting and drop boxes for absentee ballots, among a host of other proposals wrapped into the bill. It would also make it more difficult to purge voters from voter rolls and would restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.
US House Rep John Sarbanes, who sponsored the bill in 2019 and 2021, told reporters on Tuesday that the “urgency for it in this moment could not be greater, coming off the November election as Americans fought their way to the ballot box to bring democracy back from the brink.”
In remarks outside the Capitol on Wednesday, he said HR 1 is “designed to restore the voices of Americans who felt left out and locked out for too long.”
The measure also seeks to eliminate partisan gerrymandering and dark money influence from politics, with a requirement to disclose donations of more than $10,000 to politically active nonprofits and include disclaimers in online adverts. It also would create an avenue for public financing of congressional campaigns.
Small donation matching through a public-financing system exists on state-level elections; a federal option would seek to reduce the influence of corporate donors and level the playing field for smaller candidates. Americans could voluntarily indicate on their tax forms whether they are willing to donate, which would be matched by a public fund financed by tax penalties and other charges, not a new tax.
Republicans have objected to virtually every element in the bill, which they see as federal over-reach infringing on local control of elections.
Following the bill’s introduction in 2019 and subsequent rejection by a then-GOP-dominated Senate under Mitch McConnell, Rep Sarbanes re-introduced the bill in the wake of an election that saw Democrats climbing to a slim majority in Congress and record-high turnout to oust Donald Trump from the White House.
But the strong Republican opposition is likely to stall the bill a second time in the Senate, where Democrats will need 60 votes to advance it.
“If Mitch McConnell is ready to supply 10 Republicans … that would be terrific,” Rep Sarbanes said. “If the will is there, we have to find a way.”
If passed, the measure would serve as an antidote to a wave of restrictive voting legislation – disproportionately targeting Black voters – up for debate in state legislatures across the US.
In the weeks following Mr Trump’s election loss, Republicans in 43 states introduced more than 250 bills restricting voting rights, limiting ballot access or adding barriers to voting, from adding restrictive voter ID laws to preventing voters from requesting mail-in ballots after a spike in absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
A statement from the White House Office of Management and Budget in support of HR 1 said: “In the wake of an unprecedented assault on our democracy, a never before seen effort to ignore, undermine, and undo the will of the people, and a newly aggressive attack on voting rights taking place right now all across the country, this landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen American democracy.”
Republicans have insisted that legislation occupying state houses across the US addresses legitimate concerns over “election integrity” or “irregularities” in the 2020 election. The former president’s own Justice Department, campaign and an election commission he disbanded have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and nearly all of the more than 60 lawsuits filed by his campaign were withdrawn, dismissed or dropped entirely by the campaign itself, while his attorneys have faced libel lawsuits from voting machine companies targeted by their conspiracy theories.
In an largely inaccurate editorial for the Heritage Foundation’s The Daily Signal published the morning before the vote, former vice president Mike Pence called HR 1 an “unconstitutional, reckless, and anti-democratic bill” that “could permanently damage our republic”.
“Many of the most troubling voting irregularities took place in states that set aside laws enacted by state legislatures in favor of sweeping changes ordered by governors, secretaries of state, and courts,” he said.
Those states, which faced spurious challenges by the Trump campaign, expanded voting options like ballot drop boxes, mail-in voting and changes to early voting periods and absentee deadlines to make it easier to vote during the pandemic and with critical mail delays from a beleaguered US Postal Service.
Mr Pence said that “the tragic events” of the insurrection on 6 January – during which the former president’s supporters fuelled by his “stolen election” lies sought to overturn the results of the election and attack the vice president – “deprived the American people of a substantive discussion in Congress about election integrity in America.”
“Those who are promoting bogus legislation, chasing ghosts that do not exist, are neglecting and distracting from the actual threat that HR 1 addresses,” said Norm Eisen, outside counsel for the Voter Protection Program, a nonpartisan election advocacy organisation. “Those focusing on those spurious threats are stroking the ex-president’s ego … but it does not make American elections safer.”