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Congress ignored its election duties for years. That ends now

With HR 1, House Dems have laid out a blueprint for voting reform

As House Democrats push voter registration reforms, there may be heartburn at the state level. But the conversation they’re starting is a crucial one, Weil writes. Above, Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries approaches a “For the People” podium. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
As House Democrats push voter registration reforms, there may be heartburn at the state level. But the conversation they’re starting is a crucial one, Weil writes. Above, Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries approaches a “For the People” podium. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — House Democrats have waited eight years to regain the speakership, and now that they hold the gavel, they will clearly seek to move on pent-up priorities. For their first act out of the gate, they rolled several into one.

The “For the People Act” — or H.R. 1 — runs just over 500 pages and includes proposals the Democrats have pursued during their time in the minority, such as ethics reforms, campaign finance changes, and a well-publicized section requiring presidential candidates to hand over their tax returns.

But the bill also lays out a vision for election administration in 2020 and beyond, putting the voter at the center of the process instead of focusing on what is easier for government. Congress taking the lead could cause some heartburn at the state level.

Take voter registration. House Democrats went with an all-of-the-above approach to address their focus on expanding access.

They want to see voter registration over the internet, automatic voter registration, and same-day registration. They want better interstate voter matching for more accurate rolls and curbs on some list maintenance activities — items that actually address a key concern among Republicans about election integrity and form the basis for compromise.

Much of America is ahead of Congress. Michigan in 2018 became the latest of 40 states —red, blue, and purple — that allow voters to register online. Automatic voter registration is proliferating across the country, and the most well-known interstate voter registration matching program includes nearly half the states.

Still, a one-size-fits-all solution handed down from the federal government wouldn’t sit well with states. Such issues have traditionally received little or no attention from Congress, and it remains the nearly unanimous, bipartisan position of state election officials that election policies are properly decided by the states.

State of play

In part, they’re right. Not all the states have or want voter-centric election administration. Changes to the system are costly and there are perceptions that certain policies favor one party or the other. Mandating new requirements nationwide wouldn’t be as effective as proponents working state-by-state to change voters’ minds about election reforms that fit individual state’s political cultures.

But good ideas are good ideas, no matter where they come from. For far too long, legislators and election officials have accepted “this is the way it’s always been” as policy. Voters are right to demand more, and they have for years.

Watch: Pelosi, Lewis and House Democrats unveil legislative agenda for 116th

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The commonsense, voter-centric reforms in H.R. 1 could be key components of a modern American election system, even if they involve costs and tradeoffs that deserve input from the states that must implement any federally imposed changes.

The Democrats are hardly overstepping the bounds. While the Constitution is clear that the states retain the authority to set the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives,” it also says Congress may pass laws to govern the process.

Just because past Congresses have ignored that responsibility — leaving the 50 states and Washington, D.C., to create unique procedures for voting — doesn’t mean this one should.

Substance over sound

Still, things could go wrong if Democrats let politics drown out policy. Each specific election reform issue in H.R. 1 deserves public debate both by Congress and by the state legislatures across the country. Unfortunately, the package of voting reforms was introduced within hours of members taking the oath, with no Republican co-sponsors.

Let’s be honest: The Senate is unlikely to take up this legislation in its entirety — which means its value comes mostly as a conversation-starter. This is a chance to begin a national discussion on election administration. It isn’t an easy one. Democrats have traditionally focused on expanding access to the voting experience. Republicans have focused on the integrity of the system. They are moving closer together, and efforts such as the bipartisan 2013-2014 Presidential Commission on Election Administration show us that compromise is within reach. The best thing to do now is lower the temperature.

Lowering the temperature doesn’t mean sacrificing a robust debate on how to register voters, where and when to cast ballots, and who and how to count the ballots will ensure both access and integrity. House Democrats can do both.

States should not wait a moment longer to implement the reforms that improve the voting experience in the ways that Americans demand. In the meantime, Congress should start talking.

Matthew Weil is the senior associate director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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