Protecting voices of all voters is critical to free and fair elections

Popular sentiment for election reform continues to grow, and lawmakers in Washington are finally listening. On the first day of the new Congress, the House introduced its first bill. Its purpose is to protect the voices of all voters in the political process and restore trust in government. Given the troubling injuries to our democracy inflicted by several recent Supreme Court decisions, such legislative solutions have become sorely needed.

These Supreme Court decisions over the years have chipped away at key safeguards, including the Voting Rights Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, both put in place to protect the integrity of our elections. This regressive trend has led to increased voter suppression all across the country and unprecedented dark money in campaigns. Together, they contribute to a sense that American democracy no longer functions.

The assaults on voting rights have only increased since the Voting Rights Act was stripped of its lynchpin in the Supreme Court decision Shelby County versus Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderProtecting voices of all voters is critical to free and fair elections Castro to headline forum in New Hampshire after announcing 2020 decision New Jersey governor calls for redistricting reform MORE in 2013. The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, was the definitive turning point for voting rights in the United States and its most effective mechanism was preclearance, which required states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to submit for approval any proposed voting change with the Justice Department or a federal court.

Without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, states have imposed burdensome voting policies. In the 2018 midterms, states like Georgia and Arizona rejected an alarming number of absentee ballots, for reasons as trivial as forgetting to write their birth year on their ballot envelope or poor penmanship. If we had not taken action in these states, thousands of ballots would have gone uncounted. Meanwhile, many voters appeared at the polls only to discover that their names were not on the voter rolls.

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Last year, I argued Jon Husted versus Randolph before the Supreme Court. I said Ohio election officials should not be permitted to remove voters from their registration rolls simply for infrequent voting and failing to respond to a single notice in the mail. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled against us. This creates real danger that other states will pursue extreme purging practices. Five other states in addition to Ohio use infrequent voting as a trigger for deregistration from their rolls. These states are Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

The bill tackles the source of the problem. It would specifically overrule the Supreme Court decision last year, barring those purging practices. The bill would also simplify and modernize voter registration by requiring automatic registration, online registration, and same day registration. The bill would also expand access to voting through early voting, mail in voting, and greater protections for voters with disabilities. Importantly, it also lays the groundwork for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act.

The bill also responds to the unfortunate decisions that have made our government less transparent and accountable by addressing the way we fund campaigns. Back in 2003, Republicans and Democrats embraced a solution to clean up Washington. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was passed by both sides of the aisle to improve transparency and ensure that the voices of average voters would not be silenced by the wealthy few. But subsequent decisions have chipped away at this achievement.

The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission in 2010 is emblematic of a series of decisions that have transformed the campaign finance landscape in our country dramatically. Today, billionaires who wish to influence elected officials can spend unlimited amounts to help campaigns, much of it in the dark. The public demands change. A poll found 75 percent of voters in battleground House districts last year said that cracking down on Washington corruption was their top priority. Passing the bill could reduce this widespread cynicism.

The bill would shine a light on dark money by requiring disclosure of the true funders of election ads and modernizes rules so they apply online, where most election ads are placed. This is especially important now because legal loopholes have opened the door to foreign powers looking to execute nefarious online campaigns. In the 2016 presidential election, Russian accounts manipulated Facebook, Twitter, and Google users to “confuse, distract and ultimately discourage” them from voting. Thus, by extending transparency requirements to digital platforms, the bill could help stem foreign meddling, helping us conduct free and fair elections.

The bill would also multiply the power of small donors in our political system with matching funds for candidates. Smartly designed public financing systems used at the city level have proven to broaden political engagement by increasing participation of average citizens in the funding of campaigns. It is time that all Americans get the same benefits. Today, we face unprecedented attacks on our democracy. The introduction of this important bill shows lawmakers are capable of listening. But only by passing the bill can the House and Senate show their constituents that they are capable of responding to those attacks in an effective manner.

Paul Smith is the vice president of litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. He teaches at Georgetown Law Center and is a member of the board of directors of the American Constitution Society.