Senate panel dukes it out over voting rights

Lawmakers on the Senate Rules Committee clashed Wednesday over sweeping Democratic legislation on voting rights and campaign finance and redistricting reform.

“This bill is essential to protecting every American’s right to vote, getting dark money out of our elections, as well as some very important anti-corruption reforms,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the panel’s chairwoman, said in her opening statement on the For the People Act. “It is about strengthening our democracy by returning it to the hands of its rightful owners: the American people.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the ranking member on the panel, argued against the legislation, saying it would “force a single, partisan view of elections on more than 10,000 jurisdictions across the country.”

Known also as H.R. 1 and S.1, the bill is a top priority for Democrats. It passed the House in the last session of Congress, but failed to gain any traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Coming in at over 800 pages, S.1 is hefty, wide reaching and complex. 

Outside of the issues surrounding voting rights, it would create an independent nonpartisan redistricting commission in an attempt to get rid of partisan gerrymandering, restructure the makeup of the Federal Election Commission and work to give more transparency to campaign donations.

All of the issues received air time during the several-hour hearing, though sections of the bill addressing voting rights received much of the scrutiny handed out by Republicans.

Under the legislation, all states would be mandated to offer mail-in ballots, a standard period for early voting and same-day voter registration, as well as automatic voter registration. It also calls for the implementation of new voting machines and provides more resources for states to prevent foreign election threats.

GOP witnesses and members argued that many of the deadlines set for states to have these reforms in place were impractical and that the proposed expansion of voting rights would open the door for voter fraud. Republican lawmakers also characterized S.1 as a Democratic power grab and the federalization of elections. 

The question of voter fraud was at the pinnacle of the latest general election. Former President Trump repeatedly claimed that mass election fraud was the reason why he lost to President Biden on Election Day, launching dozens of lawsuits in protest. However, all of the lawsuits were dismissed, with many being tossed by judges who were appointed by Trump.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many states expanded voting rights for residents, namely more accessible early voting. This led to over 100 million Americans voting early, either by mail or in person, a record. Overall, nearly 160 million Americans cast a ballot in November, the most ever.

The Brennan Center for Justice, however, has noted that since the election, over 250 bills have been introduced in state legislatures that would make voting harder. Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, testified Wednesday that the state proposals represented a “crisis for our democracy.”

Also present at the hearing was former Attorney General Eric Holder (D), who now chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

“For as long as this country has existed there have been two opposing forces that have fought over how we define and confer the rights and privileges of citizenship, freedom and equality,” Holder said during his testimony. “Every step that has brought us closer to universal suffrage has been met by those — often by those who are in power — who want to maintain an unjust status quo.” 

S.1 is a clearly stated priority for Democrats, but also serves as a precursor for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, another voting rights bill that passed the House last session of Congress that the party is expected to reintroduce later this year.

Named after the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis (D-Ga.), the legislation would rewrite the preclearance formula found in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The original preclearance required states and jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination — largely the Jim Crow South — to submit laws that would alter voting procedures to the Department of Justice for approval. 

However, the formula was deemed unconstitutional in a landmark 2013 Supreme Court case, though Chief Justice John Roberts made it clear that Congress was well within its power to construct an updated formula.

Standing in the way of both bills is the Senate’s filibuster rule, which allows the minority party to hold up legislation if it doesn’t have 60 votes of approval. Calls for nixing the procedural tool have gained steam in recent weeks. 

The Biden administration has signaled that the president — who served in the Senate for decades — was open to the idea after previously balking at the change. 

But it’s far from clear that Democrats have all 50 of their members behind changing the filibuster. Moderate Democrat Joe Manchin (W.V.) has continued to hold his ground in support of the filibuster.

Tags 2020 presidential election Amy Klobuchar Campaign finance reform Donald Trump Eric Holder For the People Act Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Roy Blunt voting rights

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