Deep partisanship will be on display as Congress releases competing voting bills
Congress in the coming weeks will consider shoring up voting and election laws — efforts that will reflect the vast gulf between Democrats and Republicans on protecting a foundation of American democracy.
The parties will unveil separate and competing proposals that will have little chance of success in a divided government, but are likely to be used to rally supporters ahead of the 2024 elections.
House Republicans on Monday are scheduled to release a proposal that would tighten voting laws and take a defiant stand against concerns that laws passed in recent years by GOP-controlled state legislatures disadvantage some voters. Democrats, meanwhile, are preparing to reintroduce their own proposals to set federal voting standards and restore protections under the Voting Rights Act.
Even as the country prepares for the next presidential election, the separate measures will underscore how the two major parties have acted with little cohesion and often are completely at odds over voting procedures.
House Republicans are trying to send a message with both the date and location for releasing their plan, which will come Monday ahead of a field hearing in Atlanta on the eve of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. MLB withdrew its midsummer game from the city’s suburbs in 2021 over objections to the state enacting restrictive voting laws.
The event also will kickstart a push in the House to pass the GOP’s “American Confidence in Elections Act.”
Republican Rep. Bryan Steil, chair of the House Administration Committee, which oversees election law, has billed the plan as “the most conservative election bill to be considered in the House in over 20 years.”
“It works to boost voters’ confidence and uphold the Constitution by ensuring states maintain primary control over elections, not the federal government,” he said at a hearing last month. “This is in stark contrast to House Democrats’ efforts in the last two congresses, which would have nationalized our election system and centralized it in Washington, D.C.”
Since the 2020 presidential election, many Republican-led state legislatures have added ID requirements to mail voting, curtailed or banned the use of ballot drop boxes and limited the ability of someone to return a ballot on behalf of someone else.
Republicans in Georgia have touted the state’s sweeping 2021 voting law as a model for national reform, arguing the 2022 midterms and solid voter turnout were a rebuke to concerns the measure would result in voter suppression.
“The Georgia General Assembly has worked to create a system that makes it easier to vote, have results that can be audited and verified, give voters options for their preferred method of voting and build confidence using voter ID,” former Georgia state Rep. Scot Turner, a Republican, told the House Administration Committee during a May hearing.
Critics say voter assistance groups had to increase efforts to counter the effects of the law, spending more money to educate voters and help ensure they could successfully cast a ballot despite facing new hurdles.
The House GOP legislation would encourage states to examine voter lists, conduct post-election audits and enact other checks on voter eligibility. It also aims to make an example of Washington, D.C. voter laws by ending the district’s policy of allowing non-citizens to vote for local offices and prohibiting election officials from sending unrequested absentee ballots.
The Republican legislation also includes provisions to loosen finance reporting requirements and other restrictions on political parties, as well as protect non-profit organizations that engage in political advocacy from disclosing their donors.
It’s all done in the name of “election integrity” and restoring voters’ confidence in the results. But what often goes unsaid by Republicans is that former president Donald Trump inflamed many of those doubts with his baseless insistence that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Democrats say the sustained attacks on the voting process by Trump and his allies show that measures are needed to ensure free and fair elections. Their long-running efforts to enact federal voting protections failed last year after Democrats were unable to secure enough votes in the Senate to overcome procedural rules used by Republicans to block them.
While little has changed since then, Democrats argue it’s important to keep pressing the issue.
“America is under threat from election deniers and extremist anti-voting forces who undermine our democracy,” said Rep. Joe Morelle, the ranking Democrat on the House Administration Committee. “In contrast, our agenda offers national standards that ensure every eligible American can participate in accessible, secure and transparent elections.”
Democrats expect the proposals to closely mirror an updated bill that came together last year with the involvement of Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. He had sought a compromise that could draw some Republican support, dropping some of the more controversial provisions and pushing to keep state-approved voter ID requirements under certain circumstances.
In the end, Republicans remained united in their opposition, arguing the bill was a Democratic power grab aimed at taking over federal elections. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named in honor of the former civil rights leader and congressman from Georgia who died in 2020, would allow for federal review of voting law changes in certain jurisdictions to resume.
A 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court halted the process known as preclearance, after deciding the formula was outdated for identifying which jurisdictions should be subject to the review.
Meanwhile, states are not waiting for federal action – leading to a wave of election-related bills that sharply diverge based on the state and which party is in control. Where Democrats hold the majority, lawmakers have been focused on expanding access to voting, overhauling the redistricting process and restoring the right to vote for those with past felony convictions.
California, New York, Oregon, Virginia and Washington are among the states that have passed comprehensive voting rights laws in recent years.
In Michigan, lawmakers have been busy passing legislation to implement a 2022 voter-approved initiative that established nine days of early voting, the use of a photo ID or signed affidavit to verify a voter’s identity and the use of a permanent absentee voter list, among other actions. Lawmakers also are weighing a proposal to create a state-level Voting Rights Act that would create a preclearance process for state-level review of local voting changes under certain circumstances.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat in her second term, said Republicans in the U.S. House have so far been unwilling to confront false claims about elections and to embrace voter-friendly policies.
“What we’ve seen from this Congress really over the last six months is — instead of standing up to the lies around democracy — digging into them,” Benson said. “Any legislation that amplifies misinformation or codifies it, instead of debunking it, is going to be contrary to what we really need in Michigan and elsewhere to restore and ensure our voters have confidence in our elections.”
She also called on Congress to provide a sustained level of funding for elections, rather than the scattershot approach that has resulted in a varying amount each year. A recent GOP budget proposal eliminated federal grants for state and local election offices to enhance election technology and security.
Groves reported from Washington.