Sweeping voting rights package passes U.S. House

Des Moines voters speak with poll workers at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The House passed sweeping voting rights, redistricting, campaign finance and ethics reform late Wednesday on a 220-210 vote.

The historic package will face an uphill battle in the Senate as no Republicans currently support the bill.

Even though Democrats control Congress and the White House, their slim majority in a 50-50 Senate is not enough to enact the massive into law. The bill, which tackles dark money in campaigns, voter suppression and election security, requires 60 votes rather than a simple majority.

The push to end or reform the Senate filibuster is growing among Democrats who are aiming to get the package on President Joe Biden’s desk before midterm and gubernatorial races in 2022.

“I’m not optimistic on the Senate side,” Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., the architect of the bill, said Tuesday during a press conference. “We built this piece of legislation over a number of years but the urgency for it in this moment could not be greater.”

Republicans have launched attacks on the nearly 800-page legislative package, arguing that the federal government is overreaching by mandating how states carry out elections and that the country needs strict voter identification laws.

Head shot of Cindy Axne
U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne is a Democrat who represents Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District.

Iowa lawmakers voted along party lines, with Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne the only one to support the bill.

“Ensuring that Washington is working for the people instead of special interests starts with  repairing the fundamental pillars of our democracy,” Axne said in a statement. “That begins with cracking down on the influence that dark money has on our elections, combating voter suppression and gerrymandering, and protecting our elections from foreign interference.”

Republican Ashley Hinson has been elected to represent Iowa’s 1st District House seat. Democrat Abby Finkenauer is the incumbent. (Photo submitted by: Ashley Hinson campaign)

Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-1st District, said noted that GOP colleague Mariannette Miller-Meeks is still facing House review of the results of the 2nd District election. “This bill would take authority away from Iowans to run their own elections while Democrats here in Congress are also laying the groundwork to overturn the official election results in Iowa’s Second Congressional District, where the votes have been counted, recounted, and certified for Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks,” Hinson said in a statement.

Miller-Meeks was certified the winner of the November election by six votes over Democrat Rita Hart.

Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks has been seated even as Democrat Rita Hart challenges the election results. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

Miller-Meeks said in a statement the bill would nullify Iowa’s voter ID law. “As an Iowa state senator, I voted for and supported legislation to give Iowans faith and confidence in their election system. H.R. 1 would undermine state election laws and voter’s trust in their elections, and I cannot support it,” Miller-Meeks said.

U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra is a Republican from Iowa’s 4th District. (Photo by Iowa Legislature)

Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-4th District, also voted against the bill.  He said in a statement that Democrats “want to undermine election integrity by legalizing ballot harvesting, expanding mail-in voting without safeguards, and removing voter ID laws. In Iowa, we know how to make our elections safe and secure. I worked hard in the Iowa Senate to pass voter ID, which is critical to any fair election process.”

The package aims to increase voter turnout by restoring voting rights to those with a felony record, expanding early voting and same-day voter registration, getting rid of ID requirements and requiring states to set up automatic voter registration for eligible voters for federal elections. The Biden administration is supportive of the bill.

“In the wake of an unprecedented assault on our democracy, a never before seen effort to ignore, undermine, and undo the will of the people, and a newly aggressive attack on voting rights taking place right now all across the country, this landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen American democracy,” the administration said in a statement.

With historic levels of voting in the 2020 presidential election, many Republican controlled state legislatures have introduced strict voter ID laws, a trend that concerns Democrats.

“Everything is at stake,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday during a press conference ahead of the vote on the bill.

There are currently more than 33 states that have introduced 165 bills to tighten voting requirements, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. The center also found that 37 states have “introduced, pre-filed or carried over 541 bills” that would expand voting rights.

The Iowa Legislature last week approved extensive voting changes, including shortening the time voters have to cast absentee ballots and closing polls earlier.

Legislation to limit early voting and require ID to cast an absentee ballot passed the Georgia House earlier this week and is headed to the state Senate. Early voting, mail-in voting and absentee ballots were crucial for people across the state to vote safely during a pandemic.

Georgia Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both Democrats who won historic Senate runoff races, denounced the move and called the laws voter suppression tactics. The state saw historic levels of voter turnout and Biden won the state by nearly 12,000 votes.

“Voter suppression is one of the most urgent issues confronting our country and I’m going to be doing everything I can as a United States senator to push back against this trend and make sure that people don’t lose their voice in our own democracy,” Warnock told a group of reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Sarbanes also argued that the package would help restore faith in democracy for Americans after baseless conspiracy theories of voter fraud and election irregularities were spread by the former president and many Republicans. Multiple reports from the Department of Justice and FBI found that last year’s elections were secure and there was no evidence of voter fraud.

“This is not controversial,” Sarbanes said about the bill. “We’re just trying to create some baseline, universal standards so people can get to the ballot box.”

Republicans have also made false statements that the bill uses taxpayer money to fund campaigns.

Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fla., who called the bill “a travesty for all Americans,” said on the House floor that his constituents don’t want their taxes to go toward funding political campaigns. The bill does not use taxpayer money to fund campaigns

A section of the bill sets up a federal public financing program for people running for Congress, which uses money from criminal and civil penalties and settlements from corporations, corporate officers or tax code violators in the top income brackets, to match small donations.

New York City has this small donor matching system, which helps candidates for state elections raise money from smaller donations rather than having to rely on big donors and super PACS. So if a small donor gives a candidate $200, the public fund would match that donation at a 6-1 ratio, giving the candidate $1,200.

Sarbanes said this program was included in the bill in the hopes that it allows people from different financial backgrounds to run for office.