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House GOP takes new tack in advancing conservative election bills

With larger package in limbo, Republicans break out smaller proposals aimed at noncitizens

House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil, seen at a Nov. 15 hearing, says advancing election bills in smaller pieces “may have an easier path to get across and signed into law.”
House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil, seen at a Nov. 15 hearing, says advancing election bills in smaller pieces “may have an easier path to get across and signed into law.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Government funding deadlines and a chaotic stint without a speaker derailed House Republicans’ plans to push through a sprawling election overhaul package earlier this year. But this week, GOP members unveiled a pared-down strategy to move voting legislation.

The House Administration Committee in a Thursday markup reported favorably an octet of bills — a couple of which had bipartisan support, but most of which highlighted long-standing cross-party tensions on election-related issues. The most contentious of the bunch seek to make sure that noncitizens can’t vote in federal or D.C. elections.

The markup came more than four months after the committee advanced the American Confidence in Elections Act, a package of roughly 50 bills that has so far not gotten a vote on the floor and has a remote chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The new strategy is not an acknowledgment of defeat as much as it is a pragmatic attempt to spur legislative action on the cusp of a presidential election year, according to House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll still be able to see the floor [on the ACE Act] in the near future. Obviously we lost in time during October, but hopefully as we get ourselves back up and running, that bill will have the opportunity to fight for time,” the Wisconsin Republican said ahead of the markup. “In addition to that, what we’re doing is a series of bills, many of which are components of the ACE Act, in a stand-alone manner.”

ACE refers to the Republicans’ title for the package: the American Confidence in Elections Act.

“I think some of these bills are a real opportunity to fix the issue of noncitizen voting and foreign interference, but also an opportunity to have smaller pieces of legislation which may have an easier path to get across and signed into law,” Steil continued.

House Administration Republicans and Democrats did find some common ground on Thursday. On bipartisan votes, the committee advanced legislation to protect election observer access and to protect against the influence of foreign nationals in elections, a legislative recommendation made by the bipartisan Federal Election Commission.

But the normal partisan cracks emerged on other legislation, including proposals that would allow states to require proof of citizenship to vote by mail, that would override a D.C. law allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections, and that would require the secretary of Homeland Security and the commissioner of Social Security to provide states with information on the citizenship status of prospective voters.

“Unfortunately, election policy is often where those of us on this committee find our disagreements most profound,” said New York Democratic Rep. Joseph D. Morelle, the committee’s ranking member.

Most of the proposals were plucked from the ACE Act, which Steil has called the “most conservative election integrity bill to be seriously considered in the House in over 20 years.” 

Republicans have repeatedly said it’s full of commonsense measures. But the package is premised on the idea, propagated by former President Donald Trump and his supporters, that voter fraud and stolen elections are critical problems undermining American elections.

Democrats have blasted the ACE Act since it was introduced and countered by reintroducing their own election overhauls. The Freedom to Vote Act focuses in part on expanding voter access, and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act would restore and modernize protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Democrats in both chambers have made voting rights a top legislative priority, but neither bill has a chance in the Republican-controlled House.

Meanwhile, Morelle on Thursday called the ACE Act an “omnibus of anti-voter, pro-dark money” bills and lamented that most of the proposals taken up Thursday were recycled from that package. 

“From my perspective, the measures before us today are solutions in search of problems,” Morelle said. “We do not inspire confidence in our elections by parroting disproven claims of rigged elections, nonexistent voter fraud, and supporting fraudulent audits of election results.”

But Steil said the latest crop of bills were chosen, at least in part, because of their potential to generate some bipartisan support.

He pointed to a February House vote on a resolution to overturn D.C.’s law allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections. (Existing federal law prohibits noncitizens from participating in national elections.) Forty-two House Democrats supported the Republican-led measure, though the Senate neglected to take it up.

Steil has repeatedly railed against D.C.’s policy and on Thursday did so again, offering the hypothetical example of a Russian national voting in the capital after qualifying for residency on an embassy assignment.

The D.C. law does allow a foreign national to vote in local elections as long as they’ve resided in the capital at least 30 days ahead of an election and as long as that person doesn’t have voting residence or the right to vote in any other state, territory or country. 

House Administration Democrats appeared skeptical of the threat.

“We’re focusing on this issue because, frankly, my majority colleagues want to distract from the unpopular, restrictive anti-voter policies they’re trying to force on District residents,” Morelle said. “They’re trying to draw attention away from the fact that this Congress … has been nothing short of a disaster.”

Disaster or not, Steil said he sees an opportunity and plans to press on with his election proposals. He said he’d make a determination about pulling out other stand-alone bills from the ACE Act and noted that Speaker Mike Johnson, who took the reins from Kevin McCarthy in October, is a co-sponsor of the package, along with more than half of all House Republicans. 

He couldn’t say, however, whether this support could result in a floor vote on some of the stand-alone proposals before the new year.

“I’m optimistic. I know that the floor calendar is pretty tight,” Steil said. “But I’ve had positive conversations with leadership regarding finding time to bring this to a floor vote.”

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