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Democrats rally around election proposal as counterpoint to GOP plan

Measure would expand early voting, voting by mail

House Administration Chairman Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., left, and ranking member Rep. Joe Morelle, D-N.Y., are backing competing election overhaul bills.
House Administration Chairman Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., left, and ranking member Rep. Joe Morelle, D-N.Y., are backing competing election overhaul bills. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Public interest groups joined Democratic lawmakers Thursday on the House Triangle to tout an election package and warn against what they say are threats to democracy from their Republican colleagues.

Democrats are rallying support for their bicameral bill, known as the Freedom to Vote Act, which was reintroduced Tuesday. They say it would guard against practices like partisan gerrymandering and the influence of so-called dark money while expanding voting access to more Americans. 

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, House Administration Committee ranking member Joseph D. Morelle of New York and the House bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, were joined by other Democrats and members of the Declaration for American Democracy, a coalition of more than 260 public interest groups. 

“We believe democracy works best when everyone … participates in that democracy,” said Morelle, whose district includes Rochester, the one-time home of voting rights activists Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Morelle invoked the suffragette who once called voting a “natural right” on which our government is based.

“Those natural rights and those liberties are threatened today,” continued Morelle, whose committee has jurisdiction over federal elections. “They’re threatened by restrictions on voting, extremists and election deniers, a flood of dark money polluting our politics and spreading … misinformation in this country.” 

A version of the bill — which Democrats gave legislative priority in both chambers —  passed the House in the 117th Congress but stalled in the Senate. With Republicans in control of the House and Democrats maintaining a slim majority in the Senate, the proposal has little chance of becoming law, despite President Joe Biden tweeting Tuesday that “Congress must send this bill to my desk.”

Still, it serves as a legislative retort to Republicans’ own plan, called the American Confidence in Elections Act, which was introduced last week.

The Republican bill would urge states to adopt voter ID requirements, override some Washington, D.C., voting laws, and prohibit the federal government from tapping into political donor rolls. 

House Administration Committee Chair Bryan Steil, R-Wis., has defended the bill as a set of commonsense proposals. Proponents argue it would encourage voter participation by improving election integrity. But critics argue its true goal is to limit who can vote in a blatant attempt to buoy Republicans electorally. Democrats have labeled it the “Big Lie Bill,” because they said it caters to election deniers.

“The truth is, we know that when states pass laws that make it harder to vote, they’re not trying to stop everyone from voting. … The truth is that they’re actually trying to stop specific groups of people from voting, primarily Black voters and other voters of color,” said Caleb Jackson, policy counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The Freedom to Vote Act, meanwhile, would expand early voting, voting by mail and add drop boxes. It would fund increased security and cybersecurity measures for voting systems and additional poll workers. And it would implement nonpartisan post-election audits, and strengthen donor disclosure requirements for super PACs.

According to its critics, Steil among them, it represents government overreach into what should be a state-led elections apparatus.

“It’s simply a government takeover of our elections,” Steil told Roll Call on Thursday.

The ACE Act advanced out of committee last week and could get a vote on the House floor sometime this fall, Steil said. More than 100 House Republicans, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California and Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana, are cosponsors.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, who was on hand to reintroduce the Freedom to Vote Act on Tuesday, has vowed to block the Republican election bill if it advances.

The Democrats’ bill was introduced in the House by Sarbanes and in the Senate by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Rules and Administration Committee, the panel with oversight of federal elections.

House Democrats also plan to reintroduce the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in September, which would restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, parts of which were invalidated in a 2013 Supreme Court decision.

Lewis, the civil rights activist who served for more than three decades in Congress until his death in 2020, preached the importance of everyone having free and fair access to the ballot, according to Rep. Nikema Williams, a Democrat who succeeded Lewis in Georgia’s 5th District.

“One way that we can all honor his legacy is by passing the Freedom to Vote Act,” Williams said. “It is the response that we need to counter the coordinated, intense efforts across the country — just like those in my home state of Georgia, to roll back the most basic foundations of a free society, including the sacred right to vote.”

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