Jurisprudence

Unpacking the Fight Over H.R. 1, the Massive Voting Rights Bill

Democrats want to protect the vote. Republicans claim that’s a crime.

Veronica Escobar speaks from behind a podium that says, "H.R. 1: For the People Act," surrounded by colleagues.
Rep. Veronica Escobar speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 4, 2019, when H.R. 1 was first introduced. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Repairing the United States’ elections system has now become an existential challenge for Democrats. The Republican Party is increasingly devoted to choking off ballot access for those who don’t support them: As the Brennan Center for Justice notes, red-state legislatures are passing vote suppression measures dressed up as “ballot security” rules at a clip that has outpaced the same time period in 2020. Yes, some states are passing measures to increase access to the ballot, but measures that would make it harder to register, vote early, vote by mail, or produce voter ID are now being pressed in “the most significant wave of such restrictions since the Jim Crow era,” as Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center told ABC news.

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For example, Georgia House Bill 531, which passed in the Georgia General Assembly last week, would add a voter ID requirement for absentee ballots, limit the number and locations of early voting drop-off boxes, and reduce early voting days during the weekends prior to an election—including allowing just one Sunday to vote early. Georgia allowed no-excuse absentee voting without an ID and widespread in-person early voting even before COVID-19. These reforms were not responses to the pandemic, nor were they intended to be temporary. They are only being rolled back now because a Democrat won the state, and Republicans realize they need to change the rules to prevent it from happening again. The Georgia bill also provides that individuals can be charged with a misdemeanor if they hand out food or drinks to voters standing in line on election days, even as it ensures that more voters will be forced to wait in longer lines to cast a ballot. Immiserating nonwhite voters, who are disproportionately forced to wait for hours in Georgia, is very much the game plan. As the lawyer for Arizona’s Republican Party conceded last week in oral arguments at the biggest voting rights challenge at the Supreme Court this term, the party is interested in limiting access to the ballot in swing states because otherwise, the GOP is at “a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”

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These measures are being passed in reaction to provably false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, despite record numbers of audits, lawsuits, and government findings that the election was one of the most secure in American history. The response to this assurance has become that it doesn’t matter because voters no longer trust the elections system—an answer advanced by people who are aware that they are lying. On Tuesday, Mike Pence—who could have lost his life on Jan. 6 due to false claims of a stolen election—joined the “people are saying” chorus with an op-ed frothing up the Big Lie that the 2020 contest was rife with dubious practices. Pence writes: “After an election marked by significant voting irregularities and numerous instances of officials setting aside state election law, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about the integrity of the 2020 election.” Ignoring the fact that his own running mate actually seeded, watered, and fertilized the myth of a stolen election, Pence expressed sober dismay at the fact that “polling shows that large numbers of Democrats did not trust the outcome of the 2016 election and that large numbers of Republicans still do not trust the outcome of the 2020 election.” Cause, meet effect. You guys should hang out.

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Pence’s ostensible goal in penning this mess wasn’t to encourage more election truthers to storm the Capitol but to target H.R. 1, the sweeping voting rights bill that passed in the House of Representatives on Thursday. H.R. 1 provides for, among many other things, same-day and automatic voter registration, restoring the franchise to people with criminal records, and an expansion of early voting, voting by mail, and absentee drop boxes. Many states passed these reforms before COVID-19; others adopted them because of the pandemic. Now that the country has held one presidential election with widespread mail voting—leading to historically high participation without any demonstrable increase in fraudulent voting—Democrats want to make the option permanent. The nearly 800-page package also includes many large-scale anti-corruption measures, including the mandatory release of presidential tax returns, regulation of inaugural committees and campaign coordination with foreign interests, an end to partisan gerrymandering for congressional districts, and more robust regulations of campaign finance and dark money.

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H.R. 1 passed the House in 2019 but was never taken up in the Senate under Mitch McConnell. In 2021 under Chuck Schumer, the companion Senate bill, S 1, will still likely be stymied, this time by the continued existence of the filibuster. But the real story here is the frantic blowback to the legislation from the selfsame groups that would be regulated or undermined by sweeping democracy reform. That’s why conservative dark money groups like the American Action Network and the American Principles Project were out on the ramparts last week, pushing the same false claims that Mike Pence is peddling. Dark money doesn’t want dark money to be regulated or seen, but since disclosure laws tend to poll well,  Pence has framed H.R. 1’s restriction on dark money as part of “the radical left’s cancel culture crusade.”

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What, you may be wondering, does democracy reform and election transparency have to do with “cancel culture”? Well, nothing. But when all you have left is the Dr. Seuss outrage industrial complex, perhaps “cancel culture crusade” is what you’re forced to argue. The shady groups pouring funds from unknown donors into opposing efforts to reduce the undue influence of big money in politics are precisely the same shady groups that most need to be regulated through democracy reform. Groups like ACT for America (which calls itself the “nation’s premier national security grassroots organization” and has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) are pushing debunked claims about H.R. 1, including the suggestion that it allows members of Congress to draw a second salary.

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Another constituency that has taken up the noble cause of opposing democracy reform is a group of 20 Republican state attorneys general who opposed the package by warning Wednesday that, if passed, the law “would federalize state elections and impose burdensome costs and regulations on state and local officials.” Their letter, like Pence’s op-ed, falsely asserts that states have principal authority over federal elections.

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In reality, the Constitution grants Congress the sweeping authority to regulate federal elections “at any time,” including through the preemption of state election laws. Republicans must know this, because in the run-up to the 2020 election, GOP senators introduced legislation that would overturn state laws ensuring that all mail ballots would be counted. Terrified that the pandemic-related expansion of mail voting might aid Democrats, Republicans decided to demonize a practice that was historically favored by their own voters. After the election, Republicans went even further: Conservative senators and representatives voted to throw out the results from multiple states, a move that would disenfranchise millions of Americans who cast lawful ballots under valid state election laws. Republicans’ new rule appears to be that Congress may indeed regulate federal elections but only when it wants to either suppress or nullify votes.

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GOP state attorneys general, too, are eager to repeal state election results that they dislike. Many of the attorneys general who signed on to Wednesday’s letter also supported Texas’ bogus attempt to set aside the 2020 results. (They are also members of the Republican Attorneys General Association, the cancerous hate group that actively fomented insurrection on Jan. 6.) These partisans’ farcical lawsuit asked the Supreme Court to throw out every vote in four states won by Joe Biden, then direct each state’s legislature to declare Donald Trump the winner. Back then, they claimed that the Supreme Court, as in nine unelected justices, hold the authority to nullify millions of votes cast pursuant to valid election laws. But now they argue that democratically elected lawmakers in Congress have no power to exercise their constitutional prerogative to create uniform standards for federal races.

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There is no point in searching for consistency here. These are not principled positions. Their constitutional arguments against H.R. 1 are misleading at best, deliberate falsehoods at worst, and generally incoherent. Republicans are searching for some higher principle to use as a cudgel against democratic reforms that would bring America closer to true universal suffrage.  Scratch at the surface of the lies and you will find the same old Jim Crow mindset about who is entitled to vote and who is not, dressed up in Federalist Society–approved legalese.

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Perhaps the best way to think about this secretive, well-funded, bad-faith effort to kill large-scale democracy reform is not merely as another nihilist run at further undermining voter confidence (while pretending to care about voter confidence). Maybe it’s not just a new attempt to distract from a decades-in-the-making GOP project of overt racialized vote suppression that they now speak aloud in the federal courts. Perhaps it’s best to think of the attack on H.R.  1 as a ragtag mob of criminals, all of whom have succeeded in stealing elections or attempting to steal elections, now banded together to finance and fight Democrats’ eleventh-hour effort to return to the principles of “one person, one vote.” That they are messaging this enterprise by trying to convince citizens that democracy itself is the crime should come as no surprise.

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