The Senate Rules Committee held a hearing Wednesday on a Democratic bill, called the For the People Act, which would make major changes to laws governing campaigns, voting and government ethics.
Republicans have attacked the bill – also known as HR 1 in its House form and S 1 in its Senate form – as a partisan power grab that will damage the country’s democracy. Democrats have argued the bill is needed to preserve democracy in the face of widespread Republican efforts to restrict access to voting.
Here is a fact check of some of the claims lawmakers made at the hearing; the Republicans present made a larger number of checkable assertions about what is in the bill, so we checked more claims from them than from the Democrats present.
Undocumented immigrants and voter registration
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas claimed: “Under this bill, there’s automatic registration of anybody – if you get a driver’s license, if you get a welfare payment, if you get an unemployment payment, if you attend a public university. Now everyone knows there are millions of illegal aliens who have driver’s licenses, who are getting welfare benefits, who attend public universities. … ”
Facts First: It is not true that the bill automatically registers “anybody” to vote. The bill does not change current law banning people who aren’t US citizens, including undocumented immigrants, from registering to vote in federal elections. While the bill does require every state to adopt an “automatic voter registration” system, it repeatedly makes clear that only citizens are eligible to be registered.
The bill says people would have to affirm that they are US citizens before they were added to the voter rolls. It also says the government agencies involved in the registration process would inform only US citizens that they would be registered to vote unless they chose to opt out. And it says the agencies would be required to send elections officials not only people’s names but also “information showing that the individual is a citizen of the United States.”
The word “automatic” in “automatic voter registration” does not mean that there can be no verification measures. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson testified later in the hearing that her state’s automatic voter registration system includes “six checks” to ensure that only eligible citizens get registered.
It is true that there have sometimes been errors under state automatic voter registration systems that resulted in noncitizens getting registered to vote. But there have also been errors in states without automatic voter registration. Daniel Weiner, deputy director of the Election Reform Program at New York University’s liberal Brennan Center for Justice, said in an interview that automatic voter registration “increases the accuracy” of the voter rolls, “not the other way around.”
Registration for 16-year-olds
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, expressed concerns about the automatic voter registration provisions. Warner warned that the bill “overrules checks and balances in our election security. It mandates AVR, including 16-year-olds.”
Facts First: This needs context. While it’s true that the bill would require states to allow individuals as young as 16 to register to vote, the text explicitly says that nothing in the bill requires states to let individuals vote before they turn 18 – and that the bill has “no effect” on states’ own voting age requirements. The policy of registering people before they turn 18 but not yet allowing them to vote, known as preregistration, already exists in several states in varying forms.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 23 states allowed individuals under 18 years old to preregister to vote as of February 2019. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia allowed preregistration at 16 years old, while four states, including West Virginia, allowed 17-year-olds to preregister. (The other five states have different age requirements.) Specifically, the West Virginia secretary of state’s website says that people who are 17 years old and will turn 18 before the next general election can register. (It also says “17 year olds may register and vote in primary elections if they turn 18 before the next general election.”)
Criminals and the vote
“This bill is designed to get criminals to vote,” Cruz said. “This bill says, ‘If you’re a murderer, if you’re a rapist, if you’re a child molester, we the Democrats want you voting.’ ”
Facts First: This needs context. The bill would not force states to allow incarcerated felons to vote. It would require states to allow people who committed felonies to vote once they are no longer incarcerated.
“Individuals who have completed a felony sentence would have their right to vote in federal elections reinstated once they are released from custody or receive a probation sentence,” Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank, said in an email. “States would be required to notify these individuals of their re-enfranchisement.”
In a bipartisan vote on March 2, the House voted 328-97 to defeat an amendment from progressive Democrats to extend federal voting rights to people who are still incarcerated.
The prevalence of voter fraud
Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi claimed that voter fraud is “rampant.”
Facts First: This is just not true. Voter fraud is exceedingly rare in the United States. There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 general election.
Voter identification laws
Warner, the West Virginia secretary of state, said the bill “bans ID laws.”
Facts First: This is false. The bill does not prohibit states from having voter identification laws. Rather, it requires states to give voters an alternative to showing the ID the states normally require – specifically, to allow voters who do not show ID to instead submit signed statements under penalty of perjury attesting to their identity and eligibility to vote. Critics are entitled to argue that this provision weakens or undermines voter ID laws, but it’s just not true to say the bill “bans” such laws.
For absentee ballot applications in particular, the law says states can’t require any form of identification except for a signature or “similar affirmation.” It says, though, that this policy has “no effect” on ID requirements for first-time voters registering by mail. And as the National Conference of State Legislatures notes on its website, state voter ID requirements generally don’t apply to mail-in or absentee ballots anyway. “Many states allow registered voters to request an absentee ballot completely online if they are already registered to vote,” Weil said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, made a more nuanced claim than Warner did, saying that “popular policies like voter ID requirements would be banned unless states neutered them with loopholes.” This claim at least hinted that the bill does not include a total prohibition on voter ID laws.
The bill and a North Carolina scandal
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said: “As I recall, a member from North Carolina, a Republican, was elected in a close election and was expelled or not seated from the House of Representatives because he engaged in ballot harvesting, which was illegal under the law of North Carolina but would be not only legal but required to be legal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”
Facts First: This is misleading. While the Democrats’ bill would require states to allow voters to designate other people of their choice to submit their sealed absentee ballots for them, it would not legalize the fraudulent activity that allegedly occurred in this 2018 congressional race in North Carolina. Associates of a Republican operative in that race have said that they forged witness signatures on absentee ballots, cast votes in races that voters had left blank on unsealed ballots and were paid based on the number of ballots collected. All of that would be illegal under the Democrats’ bill.
In addition, the House of Representatives did not expel any Republican because of the election scandal, and it wasn’t the House itself that decided not to seat the Republican in question. Here’s what actually happened.
In the US House election for North Carolina’s 9th District, Republican Mark Harris received 905 more votes than Democrat Dan McCready. Because of the allegations against Leslie McCrae Dowless, an operative for Harris who ended up getting indicted – he said he had done nothing wrong, and his trial has not occurred yet – the North Carolina State Board of Elections voted not to certify the results. The board called for a new election, which was won in 2019 by Republican Dan Bishop. (Harris declined to run in the new election.)
It’s also worth noting that, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures web post in February, 26 states already permit voters to let someone else submit a ballot for them. Twelve of those states have limits on the number of ballots any one person can collect and return; the Democrats’ bill would not allow such limits.
McConnell, arguing that this federal bill is unnecessary, claimed that “states are not engaging in trying to suppress voters, whatsoever.”
Facts First: Since the 2020 election, Republican state legislators around the country have put forward proposals that would make it more difficult to vote. These include stricter identification requirements and reduced access to mail-in ballots, ballot drop boxes, early voting and voter registration.
Here is a CNN look at what is happening. According to the Brennan Center, the legislatures with the largest number of restrictive bills as of February 19 were in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, which all flipped from electing Donald Trump in 2016 to Joe Biden in 2020.
Sunday voting in Georgia
Criticizing Republican election proposals in various states, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said that “the most reprehensible effort of all might be found in Georgia, where Republicans recently passed a bill to eliminate early voting on Sunday. On Sunday, a day when many churchgoing African Americans participate in voter drives known as ‘souls to the polls.’ ”
Facts First: This needs context. The current version of the Georgia Republican bill – which has not been passed into law – does not include a ban on early voting on Sundays. On March 1, however, the Georgia House did pass a Republican bill that would have reduced early Sunday voting. And before that, Georgia Republicans had initially proposed to fully eliminate early voting on Sundays.
State Republicans have now backed away from these initial proposals for weekend reductions, though they are continuing to push voting restrictions of other kinds. They now appear poised to make both Saturdays of the three-week period mandatory for counties – at present, only one Saturday is mandatory – and to give counties the option of allowing early voting on both Sundays.
Voting rights activists say there is an important caveat: The bill does not appear to require any weekend early voting in runoff elections. (Democrats won two Georgia runoffs in January to earn control of the US Senate.) We’ll update this item if we get further information on the bill’s runoff provisions.
– CNN’s Dianne Gallagher and Kelly Mena contributed to this item.
The ACLU’s position on the US bill
McConnell said, “This bill is such an attack on citizens’ privacy that even the left-wing ACLU opposes this bill.”
Facts First: McConnell has a solid basis for this claim: The American Civil Liberties Union publicly opposed the bill in 2019, warning, among other things, that it would unconstitutionally infringe on “the right to associational privacy.” However, it’s worth noting for context that the ACLU has since softened its stance – saying that while it continues in 2021 to have serious concerns about certain provisions of the bill, it has not “taken a public position opposing the bill” as a whole this year, spokeswoman Gabriela Meléndez Olivera said in an email. ACLU lawyers wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post this month that they “strongly support many of the critical reforms” contained in the bill but called on legislators to fix certain other provisions.
The ACLU has expressed privacy concerns about a provision that would require the disclosure of the names and addresses of people who donate $10,000 or more to entities that make “campaign-related disbursements.” The ACLU lawyers warned in the op-ed that such disbursements “could include paid political speech that discusses a public issue such as immigrants’ rights, voting rights or reproductive freedom if the communication merely mentions a candidate for public office,” and they said that groups working to advance civil rights through paid communications should not be “deterred from doing so” because of a government-imposed funding disclosure requirement.
The National Disability Rights Network’s position on the bill
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the committee chair, entered into the record three letters that she said were in support of the bill. One of them was from the National Disability Rights Network.
Facts First: Klobuchar had a reasonable basis for her claim that the National Disability Rights Network supports the bill; the network sent her and the committee’s top Republican member a letter that called the bill “sorely needed” and said “almost all” of its provisions “will positively impact all voters in America, including voters with disabilities.” However, as with McConnell’s claim about the ACLU, there is nuance here.
The letter also expressed “great concern” about the bill’s requirement for states to use paper ballots, saying that any such mandate would mean “this important reform legislation could disenfranchise many voters with disabilities.” (You can read more here.) Michelle Bishop, the National Disability Rights Network’s voter access and engagement manager, said in an email to CNN that the organization does not have an overall position in support of or opposition to the bill.