House Democrats passed a massive elections overhaul and campaign finance bill on March 8 that proponents said would greatly increase voting rights and crack down on the influence of money in the U.S. political system.
The nearly 700-page proposal, known as the “For the People Act,” or H.R.1, passed on a straight party line vote, 234–193, and was heralded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as “a historic reform package to restore the promise of our nation’s democracy.”
“H.R.1 restores the peoples’ faith that government works for the public interest, the peoples’ interest, not the special interest,” Pelosi said on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the bill’s sponsor, said, “H.R.1 is designed … to restore ethics and accountability, to fight back against the interests of big money in our politics and to make it easier, not harder, to register and vote in America.”
Among other items, the bill would make Election Day a federal holiday, mandate automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration, assign redistricting responsibilities to independent commissions, prohibit members of Congress from serving on corporate boards, and require U.S. presidents to release their tax returns—a clear broadside against President Donald Trump.
Critics, however, have blasted the legislation as a brazen attempt to permanently skew elections and restrict political speech.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wrote in a tweet: “Democrats did not design #HR1 to protect your vote. They designed it to put a thumb on the scale of every election in America and keep the Swamp swampy.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called H.R. 1 the “Democrat Politician Protection Act,” in a March 8 tweet, after previously saying the bill amounted to “a massive power grab.”
McConnell reasserted on March 8 that he won’t allow the legislation to receive a vote in the Senate, effectively killing it. However, Republican opposition to the sweeping reform package will likely become a major 2020 campaign theme, and the bill will likely serve as the basis for any future election-related changes should Democrats retake the White House or Senate.
H.R. 1 expands access to voting in a number of ways, including forcing states to implement early voting, online voter registration, and “no-fault” absentee balloting, or the issuance of absentee ballots without requiring a reason for their request. An amendment to lower the voting age to 16 years old was submitted, but ultimately voted down.
The proposal also sets the stage to make the District of Columbia a state, according to Rep. Elizabeth Norton Holmes, a 15-term Democratic congresswoman from the district.
The measure also requires eligible voters to be registered automatically through state driver’s license offices and welfare departments unless they affirmatively decline. Felons would be automatically registered upon release from prison, and prospective voters would be able to both register and vote on the same day, including on Election Day.
Election integrity officials consider same-day voting and automatic voter registration an opportunity for voter roll inaccuracies and fraud. Same-day voting typically does not allow election officials the time to verify required voter information, and automatic registration has been shown to open the door to potential noncitizen voting.
In September 2018, the California Department of Motor Vehicles admitted to sending more than 23,000 erroneous voter registrations to the California secretary of state’s office as a result of the state’s automatic voter registration law.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla said he was “extremely disappointed and deeply frustrated that DMV’s administrative error caused inaccurate voter registration data to be transmitted to elections officials,” while asserting that no undocumented immigrants had been wrongfully registered.
Twelve states, including California, allow illegal aliens to obtain driver’s licenses, and nearly every state issues driver’s licenses to legal noncitizens. Illegal aliens in San Francisco and other urban Democratic strongholds around the country have passed local laws allowing noncitizens the right to vote, however, only U.S. citizens can legally vote in federal elections.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, offered a motion to reaffirm that only U.S. citizens have the right to vote, but the motion was denied by House leadership.
“Next time you go to the ballot box, keep that in mind. The future of their party is in cities like San Fran, where illegals can vote. Let that sink in,” Crenshaw said in a tweet on March 8.
Christian Adams, a former Department of Justice voting rights attorney and president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, told the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year that H.R.1 invites vulnerabilities in elections.
“The voter rolls are currently full of ineligible voters who have died or moved out of the jurisdiction where they are registered,” Adams said.
“H.R.1 would make the problem worse by stripping the power of states to manage their own voter rolls to keep them clean using well-established best practices, such as postal mailings and recurring inactivity of registrants in elections. H.R.1’s mandate that states stop using these tools is just bad public policy.”
H.R.1 also mandates federal funding to match small-dollar donations and would deposit the funding into campaign bank accounts. It further requires the disclosure of donors who give more than $10,000 to tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, such as 501(c)4 groups.
Current tax law allows for anonymity to protect donors from political reprisal, however many campaign-finance reformists believe the so-called dark-money system has been abused.
McConnell took exception to another H.R.1 initiative aimed at restructuring the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The agency is organized as a bipartisan six-member commission tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws. The new legislation would reduce the commission to five members with the president’s party in the majority.
On March 7, McConnell referenced the FEC reform, saying, “Democrats aren’t after an FEC that enforces the law; they’re after an FEC that enforces their ideology.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is strongly opposed to H.R.1 in its current form, due to limits it places on political speech.
In a March 1 letter to the House Rules Committee, the normally liberal-leaning ACLU warned that H.R.1 would “unconstitutionally infringe on the speech and associational rights of many public interest organizations and American citizens.”
The civil liberties group supports aspects of the overhaul but as stand-alone measures. It contends the bill goes so far as to regulate communications “that merely mention a candidate for office” in advance of an election.
These measures, the ACLU said, “will have the effect of harming our public discourse by silencing necessary voices that would otherwise speak out about the public issues of the day.”
McConnell believes the legislation is unnecessary.
“What is the problem that we’re trying to solve here? We had the highest turnout last year since 1966 in an off-year election,” he told reporters on March 6. “People are flooding to the polls … because they’re animated. They’re interested. This is a solution in search of a problem. What it really is, is designed to make it more likely that Democrats win more often.”