Editor’s Note: Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization that works to strengthen US democracy and empower citizens in the political process. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion articles at CNN.
Last week, the US House of Representatives passed the For the People Act (H.R. 1), landmark democracy reform legislation that protects the sacred right to vote and reforms our broken campaign finance system.
The bill carries forward the voting rules that were, in part, responsible for the record-setting turnout in the 2020 presidential election, an election notably without significant voting fraud.
As this legislation moves to the US Senate for consideration, Republicans in state legislatures around the country are racing to enact new laws to restrict voter access that could leave millions of eligible citizens – many of them people of color – struggling to vote in future elections. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 250 bills have been filed in 43 states to restrict voting – more than seven times the number filed at a similar time last year.
Ironically, Republicans helped enact a number of state laws on voting they are now looking to restrict. But voting is a fundamental democratic right in America, and GOP lawmakers need to think long and hard about their attempts to undermine it.
However, if they persist in their current efforts, Congress can and must step in.
If Congress enacts H.R 1 and its Senate companion, S.1, in a timely manner, the new federal voting rules would supersede many of the new state laws that would suppress voting and disenfranchise voters.
And past decisions indicate the US Supreme Court would stand by the congressional legislation.
In 2013, in a 7-to-2 decision in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, reaffirmed that: “The power of Congress over the ‘Times, Places and Manner’ of congressional elections ‘is paramount, and may be exercised at any time, and…the regulations effected supersede those of the State which are inconsistent therewith.’”
While Republican state legislators are making disingenuous claims that they are acting to protect “election integrity,” it is clear what is really going on: a brazen partisan effort to suppress as many Democratic voters as they can.
Republicans are using former President Donald Trump’s blatantly false claims of massive voting fraud to pursue state laws that, if enacted, could result in the greatest suppression of eligible American voters since the Jim Crow era.
The most far-reaching voter suppression effort is underway in Georgia. The Republican-controlled House there has passed legislation to require photo ID for absentee voting, limit the early voting period, restrict ballot drop box locations and reduce Sunday voting in October to one Sunday – a move aimed directly at Black churches and Black voters.
The Republican-controlled Georgia state Senate has passed legislation to end no excuse voting by mail, which has been in place for 15 years, and to limit mail-in voting primarily to voters who are elderly, disabled or out of the state on Election Day.
These separate bills will be merged into one bill and voted on by the Georgia House and Senate for final passage.
In Arizona, in the GOP-controlled House, Republicans have introduced legislation to sharply limit the number of vote centers, a move that would greatly reduce the number of polling places from more than 100 to 15 in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located and where more than 60% percent of registered Arizona voters live.
Meanwhile, the state’s Republican-controlled Senate approved a proposal this week to make it far more difficult to vote by mail, despite the fact that Arizonans have been voting by mail for decades and currently vote overwhelmingly by mail.
But H.R. 1 and S. 1 establish a baseline of fair and secure rules for voting in federal elections that does not vary by state and that will ensure that all eligible citizens can vote easily, safely and securely. The rules include, for example, requiring states to allow any eligible voter to vote by mail with no excuse required and to allow at least two weeks of early voting.
In addition to a record voter turnout, the 2020 election also saw records set in campaign financing. In 2020, $14.4 billion was spent on the presidential and congressional elections. Far too much of this money came from influence-seeking billionaires, millionaires, lobbyists, business executives, secret, or dark, money groups, Super PACs and special interest PACs, who are a pervasive presence in Congress.
H.R. 1 and S. 1 address this problem by creating a voluntary system that allows federal candidates to finance their campaigns with non-corrupting, small contributions up to $200 matched by public funds at a 6 to 1 ratio. When combined with the rapidly growing ability to raise small contributions on the internet, the new system will allow candidates to run competitive races without being dependent on or obligated to influence-seeking, big money funders. And no taxpayer revenues will be used to finance the system.
Still, despite the significance of this bill’s measures, no Republican voted for H.R. 1 in the House, and now S. 1 faces a filibuster in the Senate, led by Republican Mitch McConnell, one of the nation’s leading opponents of voting and campaign finance reforms.
However, there was a time when Republicans in Congress used to be leaders in democratic reform.
In 2000, House and Senate Republicans were the chief sponsors of legislation enacted to close a gaping loophole in the campaign finance disclosure laws. The bill passed the Senate 92 to 6, with only six Republicans voting against the legislation. Notably, McConnell was one of those six votes. Ten years later, however, following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the door to Super PACs and dark money nonprofits, legislation to close another gaping disclosure loophole received no Republican votes.
In 2006, 192 House Republicans, or about 85% of voting Republicans, and every voting Republican Senator supported reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, which passed the Senate 98 to 0. In 2019, however, when the House passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act, 228-to-187, only one Republican voted for the measure.
The need for major democracy reforms has not changed, but the GOP has. The 2010 Citizens United decision, seen at the time by Republicans as a huge partisan financial advantage, galvanized congressional Republicans into almost unanimous opposition to the attempts at democracy reforms that have followed.
As discussed, the passage of S.1 in the Senate is likely to come down to a Republican-led filibuster. And two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, have said they do not want to change the filibuster rules to prevent this.
But the filibuster rules are not sacrosanct. During the Obama presidency, McConnell, as Republican leader in the Senate, led a record number of filibusters. Instead of serving to protect the minority, McConnell, a serial filibuster abuser, turned the rule into a means for the minority to control and paralyze the Senate, the House and the presidency. He used it against numerous Obama nominees, in particular, and, in response, the Senate Democrats in 2013 changed the rules to require 51 votes – not 60 – to end filibusters against Executive Branch and lower federal court judicial nominees.
Then, in 2017, McConnell led an effort that changed the filibuster rules for confirming Supreme Court Justices. Now, it would only require 51 Senators. Three Republican-nominated Supreme Court Justices were subsequently confirmed under the new exception to the filibuster rule.
But is confirming a Supreme Court justice more important than protecting the right to vote, preventing massive voter suppression, safeguarding people of color from being disenfranchised and repairing a corrupting campaign finance system?
The answer to that question will be provided by the Senate, but it is the interests of more than 300 million Americans that are at stake.