House Democrats Pass Voting-Rights Bill Opposed by GOP

House Democrats Pass Voting-Rights Bill Opposed by GOP

Legislation would require states to offer mail-in and early voting and limit role of big campaign donors

House Democrats passed legislation to expand voter participation and curb the role of big campaign donors over the objections of Republicans, who claimed the measure would weaken safeguards and spur mistrust in elections.

The legislation passed, 220-210, without any Republican support. One Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, voted against it. The bill’s fate in the Senate is uncertain.

The measure would have the effect of voiding state voter-identification requirements and making permanent the widespread mail-in voting that was common in last year’s elections, requiring states to offer online and same-day voter registration as well as 15 days of early voting nationwide. It would also mandate the creation of independent commissions to draw voting districts in each state to end gerrymandering.

Democrats said that the multipronged legislation would remove obstacles to election participation, particularly for minority voters, and open up the political system to new kinds of candidates. Republicans argue that election rules should be left in the hands of the states on questions such as early voting, voter eligibility and election integrity.

Proponents pointed to last year’s elections as evidence of how changing policies could enfranchise more voters. The vote set records for turnout, with states emphasizing mail-in voting during the Covid-19 pandemic. Democrats said that enactment of the measure had become urgent as state legislatures wrote new laws that Democrats said would restrict citizens from exercising their right to vote.

“The right to vote is under attack,” said Rep. Terri Sewell (D., Ala.). “We know that our democracy works best when everyone can participate fully. But we also know that voter suppression is alive and well.”

Opponents said that after last year’s divisive election, the bill would further poison the political climate.

“Election laws should make it easy to vote and hard to cheat, but this bill would not only make it easy to cheat, it would effectively make it legal to cheat,” said Rep. Andy Barr (R., Ky.). “At a time when half of Americans have lost confidence in the integrity of our elections, this bill will only drive distrust and division higher.”

Separately, the House voted to pass legislation to overhaul the nation’s law-enforcement practices. The measure, which passed largely along party lines, is named after George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Mr. Floyd’s neck for several minutes, sparking widespread protests last year.

The legislation, which now heads to the Senate, would bar law enforcement from racial and religious profiling, reduce funding for state and local police departments that don’t ban chokeholds and create a public database of shared disciplinary records so that a problematic officer can’t be hired by another agency unaware of his or her past.

It would also make it easier to prosecute police officers for misconduct and allow civilians to recover some damages if their constitutional rights are found to have been violated by police, a change to the doctrine known as qualified immunity, which shields police officers from lawsuits. The Democratic-controlled House passed a similar measure last year, but it failed to advance in the midst of sharp differences with a rival Republican proposal in the Senate.

The voting-rights issue has become an animating feature in Republican politics, dominating the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., over the weekend.

“This monster must be stopped,” former President Donald Trump said in his first public remarks since leaving office. “It cannot be allowed to pass.”

Mr. Trump filed multiple lawsuits last year to try to overturn the November election results, in part blaming special procedures adopted by the states during the Covid-19 pandemic, including a vast expansion of mail-in voting. No court, law-enforcement agency or election authority has found evidence of widespread fraud in the presidential election. Democrats have termed Mr. Trump’s allegations of fraud a “big lie” that helped fuel the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The Democratic push to enact the most-far-reaching voting-rights law since the 1965 Voting Rights Act puts the party on a collision course with dozens of state legislatures, which have enacted or are writing new laws to tighten voting procedures. Arizona, for example, in 2016 restricted voters from designating someone else to deliver their ballots, enacting a law that was the subject of a Supreme Court challenge this week. The state House in Georgia this week passed legislation to roll back voting access, driven by Republicans who said changes were needed to restore faith in the voting process.

The state efforts are made possible by a 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. That ruling nullified a core provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, Section 5, which required states and other jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination—including Georgia—to clear any changes in their voting rules with the Justice Department. The ruling essentially released the states from the preclearance requirements.

In the bill, Democrats also take aim at the campaign-finance system in which big donors can funnel money through intermediary groups. The bill requires organizations that engage in a political activity to disclose the name and contribution amount of any donor giving $10,000 or more annually.

“We’ll have a better chance to preserve our planet if big dark money, special interest money, is not weighing in,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.). “We have a better chance of protecting our children from gun violence.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, often an ally of Democrats, opposes the voting-rights legislation over the disclosure provision, which it contends would unfairly expose its private associations with donors.

House Democrats consider the voting-rights bill—dubbed H.R. 1—a legislative priority. They passed similar legislation in 2019 after they wrested control of the House from Republicans for the first time in a decade, but it stalled in the Senate after then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky declined to schedule a vote.

This time, because the bill would likely fall short of the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate, many Democratic lawmakers have called for changing the rules to eliminate that requirement, known as the filibuster, to pass it with just 51 votes. Several Democratic senators have said they would block any effort to change Senate rules. The Senate is currently split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris available to break any ties.

“It’s one thing to say I don’t want to get rid of the filibuster,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) said Monday of the voting-rights bill. “It’s another thing after you’ve met repeated bad-faith obstruction to say, ‘OK, this is getting out of hand.’”

In the voting-rights bill, Republicans have singled out various provisions for criticism, including one that would require states to accept affidavits in lieu of presenting photo identification. Another would allow a voter to designate another person to return his or her ballot. Republicans have termed that “ballot harvesting” and say it invites fraud by get-out-the-vote operatives. GOP lawmakers also object to a new small-donor financing mechanism, in which candidates for Congress could opt into a system providing a matching grant of six dollars for every dollar they raised of $200 or less from a single donor.

Republicans also criticized provisions that would restore voting rights to felons who have been released from prison and would automatically register as voters those whose names were already in other government databases, such as those for unemployment-insurance programs or food stamps, even if the individual was as young as 16 years old. The country’s voting age is 18. In general, states couldn’t refuse to process applications from individuals as young as 16.

“They want 16-year-olds to be able to register to vote, as well as felons,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R., Ariz.). “What could possibly go wrong?” He said that “this bill is a dubious path on which they wish to embark, and if we do not stop it again it will become increasingly difficult to depart to a better road that actually restores trust in America.”

Democrats also signaled limits on their willingness to expand the franchise. An amendment to lower the age for voting in federal elections to 16 years old from 18 years old failed, with 125 in favor and 302 against. Scores of Democrats sided with Republicans in defeating the amendment.

—Joshua Jamerson contributed to this article.

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