Natalie Landreth, a senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, remembers testifying before Congress in support of a bill to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act back in 2006. At the time, the reauthorization legislation passed the Senate with a near unanimous approval from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“Support for VRA Reauthorization was wide and nonpartisan, Republicans by and large didn’t vote against it, it passed something like 96-0,” Landreth said in an interview. “Now Sen. Mitch McConnell is suggesting that the H.R. 1 and other voting bills won’t even make it to the Senate floor? The conversation around voting has degenerated so far in so little time.”
A hearing on Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee revealed a deep divide between Republicans and Democrats — not to mention millions of voters — over H.R. 1, the sweeping voting rights and anti-corruption bill at the top of the Democratic agenda. After years of Republican rule in the House, the rise of dark-money campaign groups and Super-PACs, and fierce legal battles between GOP-controlled state legislatures and civil rights groups over access to the ballot box, the tension between Republicans and the new Democratic majority was on full display.
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“The idea that we did not have problems in the 2018 election … is really an embarrassment, and I think people should be ashamed of themselves,” said Rep. Karen Bass, a Black Democrat from California, during an intense exchange with witnesses about the reality of voter suppression.
Now in the minority, conservative lawmakers and their witnesses spent much of the hearing defending an electoral system that has locked in Republican power in Congress and the majority of state legislatures since the Tea Party wave of 2010. They accused civil rights groups of “wildly exaggerating” instances of discrimination against voters of color and downplayed the corrupting impact of money in politics.
Civil and voting rights groups, on the other hand, characterized this era as one of political corruption, voter suppression and eroding democracy in the United States, thanks to gerrymandering and landmark Supreme Court rulings that gutted campaign finance laws and a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
Civil rights advocates listed off a number of voter suppression efforts made possible by a 2013 Supreme Court decision to gut the “preclearance” section of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of racial discrimination to receive federal approval before making significant changes to elections. These efforts include voter ID laws and voter roll purges that had disparate impacts on voters of color and sparked a nationwide debate around race, ballot access and conservative conspiracy theories about voter fraud.
“I think that the evidence that we’ve laid out about the numerous instances in the last couple of years around voting rights suppression in Georgia, in Alabama, in North Carolina, and even in the recent midterm elections, demonstrates the need to actually develop a rigorous record that would support the reauthorizing and the restoration of the Voting Rights Act,” testified Vanita Gupta, a former civil rights attorney for the Justice Department and president of the Leadership Council on Human and Civil Rights.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department joined civil rights groups in challenging voter ID laws in court, leading one federal judge to declare that North Carolina’s ID requirements targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.” The Justice Department reversed course under President Trump, who embarrassed fellow Republicans by repeatedly claiming that he lost the popular vote because millions of undocumented immigrants had illegally cast votes for Hillary Clinton. A commission Trump organized to investigate voter fraud was quickly disbanded due to a complete lack of evidence.
Wendy R. Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said voter suppression was more widespread and visible in the 2018 election than in previous years. She added that Trump’s lies about voter fraud did a great deal of damage to Republican arguments for restricting access to the ballot.
“It’s possible that they may have jumped the shark, and it may no longer be tenable for Republicans to hold the position that discrimination is a thing of the past, that this doesn’t harm voters, and there is somehow this widespread problem of voter fraud,” Weiser told Truthout.
The bill before the judiciary committee is known as the For the People Act, and its proposed reforms would address virtually every high-profile electoral controversy that has arisen over the past decade. The bill would establish national automatic voter registration, set rules to curb partisan gerrymandering and restore voting rights for people with felony convictions in states that have not already done so, a major goal for racial justice groups.
The bill also directly targets the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which unleashed massive corporate political spending. The legislation declares Congress’s intent to amend the Constitution and re-establish its ability to enforce campaign finance and donor disclosure rules, although doing so would require a broader move to pass a constitutional amendment. Another proposal for public campaign financing would match small donations to candidates.
“As federal elections have become increasingly dominated by a handful of wealthy donors, small-dollar matching offers a means to advance the First Amendment right of ordinary citizens to have a voice in the political process,” said Adav Noti, chief of staff at the Campaign Legal Center, in testimony submitted to the committee.
The legislation would also reduce the number of commissioners on the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) from six to five, breaking its current partisan stalemate. With three Republicans and three Democrats, votes often end in a tie, which has prevented the FEC from cracking down on suspected campaign finance violations. The agency has also “fallen down on the job” with regard to foreign election interference.
“We have hostile foreign powers that are trying to undermine our democracy in a variety of ways, and if we don’t shore it up, then it becomes a lot easier to do this,” Weiser said.
Republicans have seized on the FEC and campaign finance proposals in an attempt to characterize the bill as a partisan power grab that expands the federal government’s grip on local and state elections and threatens the First Amendment rights of political donors. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declared the legislation dead on arrival in the Senate.
The Democrats are pushing the bill ahead anyway in an effort to force Republicans to take a position on issues like voting rights, redistricting and money in politics ahead of the 2020 elections. While the legislation addresses ballot access for Native voters, separate legislation introduced in House and Senate would also protect voting rights for Native Americans, who have reported widespread voting suppression since the Voting Rights Act was gutted and in the lead-up to 2018 midterms, according to Landreth.
While the hearing in the House on Tuesday revealed deep divisions between congressional Republicans and Democrats, Weiser said that outside of Congress, the desire for voting reform transcends party lines. She points to Republicans’ hard opposition as a sign that they are now swimming against the political tide.
Recent polling by a campaign finance reform group found that 75 percent of voters in battleground House districts said that cracking down on corruption in Washington was their top priority in the midterms.
At the state level, some GOP politicians are getting on board as voters and nonpartisan reform groups demand change. In fact, Republican lawmakers backed an anti-gerrymandering ballot initiative in Ohio that voters in the notoriously purple state approved with an overwhelming majority last year. In the 2018 midterms, a number of bipartisan ballot initiatives to reform redistricting and increase ballot access were approved by voters in states across the country.
In response to concerns about voter suppression raised in the last election, lawmakers in 31 states have filed or pre-filed bills that would expand access to the ballot box for millions of people, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. New York has already passed a broad voting rights package, and 16 other states are considering their own efforts to expand opportunities to register and vote early. In comparison, only 14 states are considering at least 28 bills that would restrict voting access.
It appears that much of the country is already moving forward with or without Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill, who appear to be clinging desperately to their power.