House prepares to pass landmark voting rights, ethics bill

National News
Nancy Pelosi

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference before participating in the House Democratic Issues Conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Democrats are poised to pass a sweeping elections and ethics bill, offering it up as a powerful counterweight to voting rights restrictions advancing in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country.

House Resolution 1, which touches on virtually every aspect of the electoral process, would restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strike down hurdles to voting and bring transparency to a murky campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to anonymously bankroll political causes.

“Our purpose was to remove … obstacles of participation for Democrats or Republicans. That’s what the law requires, that was the right thing to do,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday on the House floor. “That’s what this legislation does.”

To Republicans, though, it would herald a massive expansion of the federal government’s role in elections, overruling state laws that limit ballot access in the name of election security.

“If this were to become law it would be the largest expansion of the federal government’s role in our elections that we’ve ever seen,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.

The measure, which was all but certain to pass the House in a vote expected Wednesday, has been a priority for Democrats since they won their majority in 2018. But it has taken on added urgency in the wake of Donald Trump’s repeated false claims of a stolen 2020 election.

Courts and even Trump’s last attorney general, William Barr, found his claims about the election to be without merit. But, spurred on by those lies, state lawmakers across the U.S. have filed more than 200 bills in 43 states that would limit ballot access, according to a tally kept by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

In Iowa, the legislature has voted to cut absentee and in-person early voting and prevent local elections officials from setting up additional locations to make early voting easier. In Georgia, the House on Monday voted for a law to require identification to vote by mail and allow counties to cancel early in-person voting on Sundays, when many Black voters cast ballots after church.

“They are not even being coy about it. They are saying the ‘quiet parts’ out loud,” said Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, a left-leaning group that aims to curtail the influence of corporate money in politics. “For them, this isn’t about protecting our democracy or protecting our elections. This is about pure partisan political gain.”

That’s the same charge Republicans level at Democrats.

“Democrats want to use their razor-thin majority not to pass bills to earn voters’ trust, but to ensure they don’t lose more seats in the next election,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said from the House floor on Tuesday.

The bill would require states to automatically register eligible voters and offer same-day registration. It would limit their ability to purge registered voters from their rolls and mandate the restoration of former felons’ voting rights in states where they aren’t allowed to vote. It would also require states to offer 15 days of early voting and allow no-excuse absentee balloting.

Many Republican opponents in Congress have homed in on narrower aspects of the measure, railing against provisions that would create a public financing system for congressional campaigns.

Davis charged that it would “launder corporate dollars” to publicly fund congressional campaigns. What the bill would actually do is use fines and settlement proceeds raised from corporate bad actors to create a pool of money open to candidates who meet certain requirements.

Republicans also attacked an effort to revamp the federal government’s toothless elections cop. That agency, the Federal Election Commission, has been gripped by partisan deadlock for years, allowing campaign finance law violators to go mostly unchecked.

Still, the biggest obstacles lie ahead in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.

On some legislation, it takes only 51 votes to pass, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. On a deeply divisive bill like this one, they would need 60 votes under the Senate’s rules to overcome a Republican filibuster — a tally they are unlikely to reach.

Some have discussed options like lowering the threshold to break a filibuster, or creating a workaround that would allow some legislation to be exempt. Democratic congressional aides say the conversations are fluid but underway.

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