The only surprising outcome Tuesday of a procedural Senate vote on a motion to consider Democrats’ sweeping overhaul of elections, campaign finance and ethics laws would be if it were adopted.
Republicans are expected to block the motion, stymieing the bill and infusing fresh urgency into Democrats’ internal debate over the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation. Already, liberal groups have lined up TV ads, grassroots campaigns and demonstrations around the country heading into the July Fourth recess to push for passage of the bill, dubbed the For the People Act and known as S 1 in the Senate and HR 1 in the House.
“The S 1 fight is coming to a crescendo,” said Ezra Levin, the co-executive director of progressive group Indivisible, which is planning a Deadline for Democracy campaign with actions nationwide, including over the upcoming recess. “Our goal is to make it abundantly clear that their constituents are paying attention.”
Though Republicans call the measure a power grab, Democrats say it is urgently needed to override laws in GOP-led states rolling back pandemic-era voting practices, such as early voting and balloting by mail, as well as to circumvent partisan gerrymandering ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
Both sides agree on one thing: The debate isn’t likely to end this week.
“It will be a show vote,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota said at a GOP news conference on the bill late last week. He said the vote was designed “to score political points” with Democratic voters and their allied outside groups.
Advocates for the bill say they’re under no illusions about Tuesday’s vote. They don’t expect any Republicans to vote for the motion. Still, some say, it’ll be a success if they get votes from all 50 Democrats and the independents who caucus with them.
“If we have 50 votes to proceed, we have made major progress from where we were a week ago,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which supports the bill.
Next steps after Tuesday’s vote involve putting pressure on senators from both parties, blasting Republicans for opposing the bill and urging Democrats to scrap the filibuster.
Fix Our Senate, a liberal group that advocates rolling back the filibuster rules, this week launched a seven-figure ad campaign in Rhode Island and Delaware, which have all-Democratic delegations in Congress. More efforts are coming after that, according to the group.
“With an unprecedented assault on the legitimacy of our elections, we need the Senate to secure our democracy in this century, not defend the abused filibuster of the past,” a narrator says in the spot.
Former President Barack Obama and Eric H. Holder Jr., who served as his attorney general, held a tele-town hall Monday to boost support for the bill. Additionally, more than 80 businesses, such as Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, have signed on to a letter in support of the legislation.
End Citizens United and other allied groups have an ongoing advertising campaign, part of a $30 million commitment for the measure. The group has hosted press calls in recent days with lawmakers and other officials to build support.
Wrangling over the bill
The Democratic-led House has already passed its version of the bill, which would reshape how congressional candidates may fund their campaigns by instituting an optional public financing system that would match $6 in government money for every $1 raised in small donations. The bill also would set minimum standards for voting, such as same-day registration, mandatory periods for early voting and access to no-excuse mail-in balloting.
Nonpartisan panels would also be empowered to redraw congressional districts. And the bill would establish new rules and ethical standards for lobbyists, lawmakers and federal officials, among other provisions.
West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III, a pivotal vote on the bill, released last week a list of measures he supported after writing in a home-state newspaper that he could not vote for the House-passed version. Manchin’s list did not include the optional public financing system; it proposed having computers devise nonpartisan congressional maps.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, said he was “impressed” with Manchin’s work on the legislation and that the West Virginian was engaging with his colleagues.
Wertheimer said that if Manchin votes to begin debating the bill, then he and Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer could negotiate the text of the bill. “So this is one step at a time,” said Wertheimer, who supports public financing for congressional campaigns.
Merkley, along with advocates pushing for the bill, said the Senate needs to pass the bill by the end of the summer for it to apply to this cycle’s congressional redistricting and to allow states to revise their voting and elections practices for the 2022 midterms.
Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which has partnered in advertising campaigns with End Citizens United, said her group has been involved in pushing for the legislation for months and would continue to do so in the coming weeks. The group is engaged in grassroots, media and other campaigns in West Virginia, Arizona, Alaska, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and other states.
In advance of the Tuesday vote, Ward Burton said, her group has been working “to really generate attention on the bill” and to encourage volunteers and activists to call their senators and express their support. She said the redistricting provisions, which would specify and ultimately prohibit practices determined to be partisan gerrymandering, are urgently needed as states are due to begin drawing their new House district boundaries once detailed results of the 2020 census are released later this year.
Republicans are seen as having the advantage overall in redistricting, with GOP-controlled states such as Texas and Florida gaining seats. Ward Burton said the bill, should it become law, would set out what practices are unacceptable and if congressional maps run afoul of that then “it provides a clear statute for a federal claim against that map.”
This type of federal tinkering with state decisions in how they draw their congressional boundaries and run their elections has Republicans seething.
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who serves as the top Republican on the Rules and Administration Committee, said at a recent news conference that the bill was “built on the totally bad foundation of the federal government taking over the structure of elections.”
He and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Democrats’ rationale for the legislative package, which totals more than 800 pages, has shifted. When House Democrats passed a nearly identical bill in 2019, they said it aimed to restore confidence in democracy after the 2016 elections and the ethical lapses of the Trump presidency. Now their message is to override the GOP state laws.
“There’s always a different reason for them to want to do this,” Blunt told reporters last week.
Republicans also say that aspects of the bill are unpopular with voters, while Democrats and their allied outside groups say the measure enjoys widespread support across the partisan aisle.
When pollsters ask about specific provisions in the legislation, which would provide workarounds to strict voter ID laws, the results seem more nuanced.
A Monmouth University Poll released Monday found that a majority of adults nationwide, 71 percent, wanted more and easier access to early voting while 80 percent said they support requiring voters to show photo identification to cast a ballot. About 69 percent said they support national guidelines for voting by mail and in-person early voting.
“The bottom line seems to be that most Democrats and Republicans want to take the potential for election results to be questioned off the table,” poll director Patrick Murray said in a news release. “The problem, though, is they aren’t likely to agree on how to get there.”