One of the biggest political battles this year is going to be over voting and elections. We’ve seen a similar argument playing out for years: One side says current election laws are too restrictive and keep people from voting, while the other says our election system is vulnerable to wide-scale cheating and we need to impose additional security measures. However, in the aftermath of the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, there’s a small window to meaningfully address the issue.
Democrats are pushing House Resolution 1, or H.R. 1, a big piece of legislation also called the "For the People Act." The resolution would make it standard for states to have about two weeks of early voting, automatic voter registration and no-excuse mail-in voting — meaning that anyone who wants to vote by mail can do so without having to justify why. In addition, H.R. 1 would crack down on gerrymandering, a practice in which state legislatures create congressional districts with distorted and disfigured shapes in an attempt to give their party an advantage. It would also allow voters to designate someone else to return their ballot for them, and would prohibit a limit on “how many voted and sealed absentee ballots any designated person can return.” This is referred to as either ballot harvesting or ballot collection, depending on whether someone opposes or supports it.
The House has already passed this proposal, and the Senate is beginning to take it up through the committee process, with hearings starting on March 24.
Now, you would think most people would agree that we should try to make voting secure and accessible, that we should have confidence in the results and that we should arrange things so as many people as possible can legally cast a ballot.
However, while H.R. 1 is debated at the federal level, Republicans are increasingly seeking to make it harder to vote in individual states. There have been close to 250 bills submitted in 43 states this year, most of them by GOP lawmakers, that aim to crack down on mail-in voting, restrict early voting, make it harder to register to vote, and make it easier for state officials to remove people from the voting rolls.
Not all these obstacles are crazy. There's a reasonable debate to be had over things like voter ID, which sounds like common sense to a lot of people. But when Republicans in Texas require ID and then make it acceptable to use a gun license but not a student ID, as they did several years ago, that sends a message that these efforts may not really be so much about preventing cheating and may have more to do with gaining an advantage.
And when you really dig into the issues of voting and election security, you realize that voter ID is a solution for a problem that largely doesn't exist. Voter impersonation — pretending to be someone else in order to vote — is exceedingly rare. The conservative Heritage Foundation’s own data on election fraud shows this.
In an interview for the Yahoo News podcast “The Long Game” prior to the 2020 election, Ben Ginsberg, a longtime GOP election attorney, said there just isn’t much evidence to support Republicans’ claims of widespread voter fraud.
“I’ve been looking at polling places for 38 years as part of my duties and passion for the Republican Party doing well in elections,” he said. “We’ve been looking for fraud, and I know what evidence is available, and there’s not anything like the evidence to make the bold assertion that our elections are rigged and fraudulent.”
But for two decades, Republicans have used claims of fraud and cheating to justify erecting obstacles to voting. It started with the George W. Bush administration in the early 2000s, then really accelerated after the Supreme Court removed a key component of the Voting Rights Act in its Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013. Then, of course, came President Donald Trump and the fiction that the 2020 election had been stolen.
So now, many in the GOP, rather than telling their voters the truth about the election, are using the confusion and concern generated by Trump's lies to try to shape elections in a way that they think will help them win in the future.
But here’s the thing: There’s a lot of evidence that getting more people to vote doesn’t actually favor one party over the other.
“Even in the 2020 election, it turned out there were 10 million more Republican voters than Republicans thought there were,” Yuval Levin, a director at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told Yahoo News. “Letting more people vote brings out more Republicans and Democrats.”
And that brings us back to H.R. 1. The fact that it federalizes election laws is one of the main objections for a lot of conservatives. And with current filibuster rules, it can’t pass in the Senate without 10 votes from Republicans. But Democrats could potentially do away with those rules and pass it on a simple majority by abolishing the filibuster.
It does not look likely, however, that there are 50 Senate Democrats who will support abolishing the filibuster. Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Dianne Feinstein of California have all said they’re opposed to such a move. And President Biden, who spent six terms in the Senate, has repeatedly signaled over the years that he’d like to keep the filibuster as well.
There seems to be growing momentum, however, to require those who want to filibuster to actually hold the Senate floor physically and debate the issue. Back in the 1970s, the rules were changed to allow senators to use the filibuster to block legislation without actually holding the floor. So instead of giving marathon speeches to prevent the passage of legislation they object to, senators can block a bill indefinitely unless there are 60 votes to pass it.
The larger question, though, is whether there is any hope of a bipartisan effort on making voting more secure and more accessible, together at the same time. Many experts who support the reforms included in H.R. 1 say it would be a mistake for Democrats to push it through unilaterally, arguing that doing so would make democracy itself a political issue.
The rejoinder from Democrats, however, is that the GOP can’t be trusted to support electoral reform — particularly after Trump’s false claims, which culminated in the riot at the Capitol.
So the country is in a tough position. Experts say we need both parties to work on strengthening democracy, but even Republicans with sincere and credible objections to voting rights packages like H.R. 1 have been conditioned by their party to be inherently skeptical of making it easier to vote.
“Republicans are in a bad place, because I think they find themselves arguing, in essence, that there ought to be fewer voters, which is, in my view, wrong, and also the wrong place to be as a political matter," says Levin.
Congress can make our elections secure and accessible. The question is whether politicians can work together to do so. And right now, most — but not all — of the burden is on the GOP.
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