Republicans are working ‘to rig every election from 2022 onwards’. If Democrats don’t pay attention, it’ll happen

There are currently 165 separate pieces of legislation pending in 33 states to restrict access to the ballot. The three states with the most proposals — Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia — were carried by Biden in 2020, but are Republican-controlled

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Wednesday 17 February 2021 16:50 GMT
<p>Mitch McConnell referred to a bill to widen voting access as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act”</p>

Mitch McConnell referred to a bill to widen voting access as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act”

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With Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial in the rearview mirror, the Biden administration is moving forward with an aggressive legislative agenda. That starts with relief from the coronavirus pandemic. But with the House poised to take action on a sweeping ethics and election reform package next month, current and former Congressional staffers and experts are warning that legislation to strengthen democracy needs to be pursued with the same vigor as any infrastructure or stimulus package.

In a letter to House members on Tuesday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the House will take up H.R. 1, the For the People Act, during the week of March 1, after spending the last week of February on passage of the Biden-backed American Rescue Plan, a massive wilderness protection bill, and the Equality Act, which bans discrimination against LGBT Americans. 

“This legislation, which the House passed in 2019, is the centerpiece of Democrats’ agenda to make government more transparent and accountable to the people it serves,” Hoyer wrote.  “From protecting voting rights to reforming campaign finance, from requiring higher ethical standards for public officials to engaging in nonpartisan redistricting reform, H.R. 1 aims to renew Americans’ faith that their government will always work for the people.”

Sponsored by Maryland Representative John Sarbanes along with all but four members of the House Democratic Caucus, the For the People Act was House Democrats’ signature piece of legislation during the 116th Congress. The sweeping 791-page bill aims to “expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy.” 

Although the House passed the measure early on during the 116th Congress, it became one of nearly 300 House bills which received neither a hearing nor a floor vote in the then-Republican controlled Senate. In a January 2019 op-ed in The Washington Post, then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — a longtime opponent of campaign finance restrictions — called the bill the “Democrat Politician Protection Act” and derided it as an attempt to “grow the federal government’s power over Americans’ political speech and elections.”

But with Democrats now in control of the Senate and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Jeff Merkley promising to introduce a version of the bill — to be dubbed S.1 — in the upper chamber, Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration have a chance to enact what would be the most significant expansion of voting rights since the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That would include bringing in uniform standards for early voting, absentee voting, and automatic voter registration across all 50 states, and ensuring competitive House elections by requiring states to use nonpartisan commissions to draw congressional districts.

Voting rights advocates say such reforms are needed now more than ever. Enraged by Biden’s victory over Trump — a victory made possible by record voter turnout and by Democrats’ use of early and absentee voting in battleground states — Republicans in state legislatures are preparing for the 2022 cycle by building on Trump’s “big lie” of a stolen election with a push to shrink the electorate as much as possible. 

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are currently 165 separate pieces of legislation pending in 33 states to restrict access to the ballot with stricter identification rules, limit the use of postal ballots, shorten voter registration and early voting windows, and make it easier for election officials to purge voter rolls in between elections. The three states with the most proposals on the legislative docket — Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia — were carried by Biden in 2020, but have Republican-controlled legislatures. 

Yet even as an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party celebrates Trump’s second impeachment acquittal by censuring the seven GOP senators who voted to convict him, the response from the Biden administration has been muted. 

Much of the administration’s early focus has been on moving the President’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan through Congress, though the fate of bill’s provision setting a $15 federal minimum wage remains an open question. The White House is also putting political capital behind the Biden-backed US Citizenship Act, which would provide pathways to citizenship for millions of agricultural workers, refugees living under long-term Temporary Protected Status, and participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

The lack of attention to pro-democracy reforms, experts say, could prove a costly mistake come 2022. Because of the all-encompassing, zero-sum nature of 21st century politics — not to mention the upcoming decennial redistricting process — Democrats have a limited window to enact meaningful pro-democracy legislation before GOP-led state legislatures can successfully rig the game. That could mean Republicans locking Democrats out of any meaningful chance of controlling Congress for the next decade. 

“After January 6, this needs to be job one,” said one irate Democratic Hill staffer. “2022 is coming, and Republicans are already doing their best to rig things to take back Congress and entrench themselves so they can be in a position to throw out Democratic electoral votes in 2024.”

Norm Ornstein — an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has spent years documenting the GOP’s descent into being what he and Brookings Institution political scientist Thomas Mann once called “an insurgent outlier” — said that unless Democrats use the power of their majority to enact meaningful reforms and solidify voting rights, the 2022 election could be America’s last chance for democracy. 

“The single most significant element of keeping from having voter suppression become the norm is to get reforms for federal elections that guarantee the right to vote,” he said. Democrats need to summon the political will to either eliminate or reform the 60-vote threshold for ending a legislative filibuster unless they want to see the Senate end up as much a legislative graveyard under Democratic control as it was under the GOP, he added. 

Eliminating the filibuster would, in theory, require all 50 Democratic Senators to vote to sustain a procedural ruling by the Vice President that only a majority vote would be required to pass legislation, and for her to cast a tie-breaking vote as well. But several Democrats, most notably West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, have expressed opposition to ditching the filibuster, since Democrats have also used it to block GOP proposals when they’ve been in the minority. 

Ornstein said such reservations only play into Republican hands, and stressed that McConnell — who eliminated filibuster requirements to push Trump’s Supreme Court picks through the Senate — would have already killed the legislative filibuster if he saw a need over the past few years. 

“People have an emotional reaction to things like this, and don’t listen to the reasons, but the emotion doesn’t reflect reality anymore,” he said. “There’s just an unwillingness to understand the implications here.”

According to Common Cause Senior Counsel Stephen Spaulding, the implications of not getting H.R. 1 passed could be extremely serious.

Spaulding, who helped write H.R. 1 while serving as Senior Elections Counsel to the Committee on House Administration, warned that the damage Republicans could inflict on democracy in the absence of federal action could be irreparable. 

“For democracy in general, the danger of not taking action is potentially catastrophic, given the precision and targeting and manipulation of the rules that some state legislators are doing to make it harder to vote,” he said.

Spaulding explained that Republican efforts to restrict voting took off after the Supreme Court’s decision inShelby County v. Holder, which invalidated the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s requirement for states with a history of racial discrimination to submit changes in voting rules to the Justice Department for pre-clearance. But he added that establishing uniform standards for voting across all 50 states would not have a partisan tilt one way or another. Until Trump started attacking the validity of postal ballots, Republicans had made use of them in greater numbers than Democrats in many key states.

“Ever since then, we know that there are elected officials at the state level who have been working tooth and nail to make it harder to vote, so this is an opportunity to really level the playing field,” he said. “I think these are basic, common-sense solutions to make voting more convenient no matter what party you’re in…. We just had the most the highest turnout election… in the middle of a global pandemic, and that’s because people took steps across the country to make voting more convenient. Now we need to lock those in.”

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