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Voting Rights Battle Just Getting Underway

Two Democratic bills introduced before Trump commission’s sweeping request to states

New Orleans voter Albertine Reid leaves the booth at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward on Election Day last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Orleans voter Albertine Reid leaves the booth at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward on Election Day last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Even before the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity raised alarms with its sweeping requests for state voter data, House Democrats rolled out legislation they hope will ensure the voting process is fair.

One measure, introduced at a news conference on Capitol Hill on June 22, would restore voter protections across 13 mostly Southern states. Sponsored by Alabama’s Terri A. Sewell and Georgia’s John Lewis, a civil rights icon, the measure is a response to the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision. That ruling struck down provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required those states to seek federal approval before changing voter laws and also set a formula for determining which states would be subject to the law. 

“We’ve got to ensure that people understand that every American deserves the right to vote. Certain barriers make that impossible, like, if you don’t drive because you’re elderly and disabled. But this is unfair,” Sewell said. The states affected are Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Arizona, California, New York and Virginia.

Another measure, introduced by Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., aims to end gerrymandering of House districts by using ranked-choice voting — where voters get to rank candidates rather than just pick one — and creating districts where more than one member represents a diverse group of constituents.

The bill seeks to establish a more diverse, balanced and fair representation in Congress — “an appeal to the low tolerance Americans have for the current ‘winner-takes-all’ approach,” a Beyer spokesperson said.

While the Virginia Democrat’s proposal would mean radical changes across the U.S. voting and congressional representation system, he said changing the system is the only way to “revitalize” the political process.

“We would have more moderate Democrats from districts leaning Republican, and vice versa, creating a type of politician — now nearly extinct — known as a ‘bridge builder,’” Beyer wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post last week. “Many members would share constituents with members of the other party, creating incentives to work together on legislation affecting the district.”

Neither bill has garnered any Republican backing, though the Sewell-Lewis bill is co-sponsored by 185 House Democrats.

The two measures have disparate aims: one to expand voting rights, the other to expand the system itself. Both, however, frame a Democratic legislative response to the White House commission’s purpose to investigate voter fraud.

Rivaling commissions

On June 28, the commission requested states provide detailed voter information including Social Security numbers, party affiliation, criminal backgrounds and military history. 

The responses, from Republicans and Democrats in secretary of state offices, have been fraught with privacy concerns. 

At least 44 states are refusing or only providing limited information requested by the commission, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and the commission’s vice chairman, fired back in a statement Wednesday, saying that “despite media distortions and obstruction by a handful of state politicians, this bipartisan commission on election integrity will continue its work to gather the facts through public records requests to ensure the integrity of each American’s vote because the public has a right to know.”

Even Kobach’s state, though, won’t be providing some of the requested information because laws there protect Social Security information, for instance. 

Meanwhile, Sewell’s profile in the area may grow. In response to Trump’s forming of the voting commission in May, the Democratic National Committee launched its Commission on Protecting American Democracy and installed former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander as chairman and Sewell as its vice chairwoman. 

“One person, one vote is a fundamental principle of our democracy, and I am proud to be part of a Commission that seeks to protect and advance voting rights,” Sewell said in a statement after her appointment. 

Jason Allen, a York, South Carolina, resident and lawyer, said he hopes the efforts will ensure voter protections. He said recent efforts to crack down on voter fraud have had a “chilling effect” on legitimate voting activity, particularly among minorities. 

“I have found South Carolina’s voter ID law does not technically prevent many people from voting, but it has a chilling effect on political engagement because it sends a signal that the political process isn’t for everyone — more rural, poor, minority populations who generally vote for Democrats, that is,” he said.