Dems vow quick action to bolster voting rights upon taking power

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiNational emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win Congress allows Violence Against Women Act to lapse High stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks MORE (D-Calif.) on Friday outlined an ambitious overhaul to the way government operates — including legislation to strengthen voting rights protections.

Pelosi, widely expected to be elected the next House Speaker, vowed to make it the first order of business when Democrats realize their newly won majority next year. 

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The goal, Pelosi said, is “to reduce the role of money [and] advance fair elections, and one part of that is having the Voting Rights Act early on the agenda.”

The effort would come following a midterm election that included a number of closely fought elections, including a tight race for governor in Georgia that was shadowed by accusations that black voters were being disenfranchised.

Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellCongressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker Former staffer accuses Jackson Lee of retaliation after rape claim Dems offer measure to raise minimum wage to per hour MORE (D-Ala.), who has sponsored legislation to restore voting protections lost when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, said the issue will be “our first order of business” in the next Congress.

“That means starting work, on Day One, to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Sewell.

“We believe that no matter what state you live in — whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican — you should have a fair voice in our elections,” she said. “Your vote is your voice.”

The issue of voting rights protections has been on the Democrats’ radar for years, particularly among members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). And it’s only gained steam this cycle, following reports of voting irregularities — and in some cases, allegations of outright suppression — in states like Georgia and Florida, where black Democrats vying for governor fell by razor-thin margins.

In Georgia, a group backing Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams sued the state this week, alleging the elections were rigged to disenfranchise black and other minority voters. In North Carolina, officials are investigating allegations of a fraud scheme targeting Democratic voters. Several of the complaints, in that ongoing probe, came from African American seniors.

At issue is a section of the Voting Rights Act that had required a number of states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls — most of them in the south — to get federal approval before changing their voting rules.

In a 5-4 decision in June 2013, the Supreme Court eliminated that requirement. Behind Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court's conservative majority found that the formula dictating which states are subject to the extra hurdles — defined by Section 4 of the law — is outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

The Court did not invalidate Section 5 of the law, which empowers the federal government to require pre-clearance for certain states and localities. But without a formula to determine which regions are subject to the extra scrutiny, Section 5 was effectively neutered.

Roberts invited Congress to “draft another formula based on current conditions” — which is what Sewell has done in her proposal. 

Outgoing Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanUnscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden Coulter defends Paul Ryan: This is 100 percent Trump's fault The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration MORE (R-Wis.) has said he supports strengthening the Voting Rights Act. But he’s deferred the decision to move legislation to Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteIt’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling House GOP probe into FBI, DOJ comes to an end MORE (R-Va.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who’s adamantly opposed to restoring the protections.  

The issue resurfaced in September, when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan panel, issued a damning report finding that minority voter protections in certain parts of the country were severely weakened by the Supreme Court’s decision. The group urged Congress to intervene. 

Goodlatte responded by issuing a five-year-old statement explaining why Congress has no role to play. He has said congressional action is unnecessary because other parts of the Voting Rights Act, which were left intact by the Supreme Court, provide sufficient protections against race-based discrimination.

Asked about the appropriateness of releasing a five-year-old statement in response to a new report, a spokeswoman said, “The Chairman’s position has remained the same since the 2013 statement.”

Democrats, and a number of Republicans, have a decidedly different view, pointing to a long list of states that have adopted higher hurdles to voting since the 2013 ruling took effect, including photo-ID requirements, shorter windows of early voting and the elimination of same-day registration. 

“It’s ridiculous that it’s an obstacle course to get to the ballot box, still, 240 years into this Republic,” said Rep. John SarbanesJohn Peter Spyros SarbanesTo end Washington corruption, officeholders and candidates must have a new way to finance their campaigns Progressives want Dem bill to require presidents release business tax returns Lawmakers push crackdown on foreign lobbyists MORE (D-Md.). “So we have to make it easier — not harder — to register, to vote and people have to have confidence that when they exercise their franchise, that vote will be tabulated and it will be protected.”

Sewell proposed a March 3 deadline for passing their reform package — a date marking the 54th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march that nearly ended the life of Rep. John LewisJohn LewisThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears Bill Clinton jokes no one would skip Dingell's funeral: 'Only time' we could get the last word Biden eulogizes Dingell: 'Dignity was how John walked. Dignity was how John talked' MORE (D-Ga.) and led directly to adoption of the Voting Rights Act. 

The issue has emerged amid the ongoing saga over Pelosi's future on Capitol Hill. Pelosi, facing a group of insurgents fighting to block her rise to Speaker, has been huddling with her detractors in an effort to win them over. She won an early victory last week when she enticed Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia Louise FudgeCongressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to step down as CBC Foundation chair amid lawsuit Reporter says to expect Capitol Hill to take action on North Carolina's 9th District MORE (D-Ohio), former chairwoman of the CBC, to her side by offering to revive a defunct voting rights committee and give Fudge the gavel.

"Our party should reflect the diversity of our changing nation and guarantee all our citizens the unfettered right to vote and to have every vote count," Fudge said at the announcement.

The push for stronger voting rights protections is just one part of a larger package Democrats are promising to tackle immediately when they take control of the House next year. That bill — to be introduced as H.R. 1 — will also feature provisions promoting tougher ethics rules for lawmakers, as well as efforts to limit the role of money in politics.  

Democrats think adopting those reforms will send the message to voters that they have the public’s interest in mind, thereby easing passage of the other items on their legislative wish list.

“If we are going to accomplish the bold, aspirational things that everybody wants in America, … we have to have a government that they can trust. And this is the first step to building a government that they can trust,” said Rep.-elect Veronica EscobarVeronica EscobarHouse Dems rallying behind border deal with 55 miles of barriers O'Rourke counters Trump's border claims in rival El Paso rally Dems call for 'strategic investments' while touring southern border MORE (Texas). 

“Once we pass this, we can then get on to tackling all of the big-picture issues that the American public expects us to tackle,” she said.

Democrats will likely face strong resistance to all of those reforms in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Green New Deal Resolution invites big picture governing ‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire MORE (R-Ky.) has shown no appetite for moving such legislation. 

Pelosi suggested the power of public sentiment would eventually force the hand of Republicans. 

“Our best friend in this debate is the public,” she said. “We believe that it will have great support and that message won’t be lost on the Senate or on the president of the United States.”

Rep.-elect Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiDem lawmakers call for FBI probe into Trump golf clubs' hiring of undocumented immigrants Dems warn against deporting former Trump golf course workers Bipartisan House group introduces bills to stall Syria, South Korea troop withdrawals MORE (N.J.) said Democrats will have no trouble winning over voters in his district, regardless of their political leanings.

“A lot of us who supported this ran in districts where we have to get Republican support to be here,” Malinowski said. “And I can tell you, I did not meet a singe Republican voter who thought its was a good to allow, say, a foreign government to channel money through nonprofit organizations to a Super PAC in the United States to influence the outcome of our elections. 

“This is bipartisan when it comes to the American people.”