House Democrats kicked off a push for election reform Tuesday, calling for Congress to reinvigorate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, restore voting rights to felons nationwide and impose new restrictions on political campaign speech.
After an election cycle dominated by Democratic complaints of voter suppression and difficulty casting ballots, the new House majority has vowed to deliver on changes they say would prevent a repeat and would open the ballot box to millions of people who don’t regularly vote.
“Now more than ever, Congress must return to fundamental American ideals in leading our country out of the darkness,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who blamed President Trump for “voter suppression tactics.”
Chief among his goals is to breathe new life into the Voting Rights Act by forcing states and localities with a history of discrimination to submit all of their election-related proposals, from voter-ID laws to polling place moves, to the federal government for pre-approval.
Democrats have been itching for action since a 2013 Supreme Court ruling struck down the law’s formula that controlled which states and counties were subject to the “preclearance” super-scrutiny, which they said could head off any changes that would make it tougher to vote.
“These changes would get fixed before elections would take place,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The Democrats on Tuesday picked Stacey Abrams, who lost in her race to be governor of Georgia, to deliver their response to President Trump’s State of the Union speech next week, a natural choice to send their message of voting rights expansion. She had complained during last year’s campaign that voting was too restricted, and after the Election Day numbers showed her losing, she complained that the votes weren’t being counted correctly.
Conservatives argue that examples of discrimination are rare, noting the Obama Justice Department brought only a handful of cases during its eight years.
The Democrats’ package of proposed reforms also would require a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices, mandate nonpartisan officials draw congressional district maps to curb partisan gerrymandering, push for campaign finance reforms and restore felon voting rights in federal elections.
Democrats said restoring felons to the voting rolls helps rehabilitation and curtails recidivism.
“Not only is ex-offender disenfranchisement wrong and anti-democratic in and of itself, many of these laws were deliberately designed to entrench white supremacy,” said Mr. Nadler, New York Democrat.
Republicans raised a number of concerns.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida said Democrats’ plans don’t distinguish between violent and nonviolent felons. In Florida, which enacted a restoration of voting rights for some felons, murderers and perpetrators of sex crimes are not allowed to register.
“There are some things you can do that are so bad,” Mr. Gaetz said.
Rep. Ben Cline, Virginia Republican, asked if other rights should be restored to felons such as serving on a jury or running for public office, suggesting the move could have a widespread impact.
Hans von Spakovsky, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said it would be messy to have a law restoring convicts’ voting rights for federal elections — the only area Congress can control — but not local elections.
“It would cause great confusion,” Mr. von Spakovsky said. “Local counties have a big enough trouble maintaining voter registration lists.”
The two parties also clashed over Democrats’ plans to order states to use nonpartisan commissions to draw their congressional lines.
Democrats said it would remove the partisan gerrymandering that has led to outlandish line-drawing. But Republicans said it’s “anti-democratic” not to allow elected officials chosen by voters to draw the district lines.
Republicans also questioned the overall push toward federal intervention, saying Democrat-controlled areas seem to have voting problems.
“Whether it’s Huey Long in Louisiana or the Black Panthers in Philadelphia, the Democrat Party relies on corruption and voter intimidation to win elections,” said Rep. Ken Buck, Colorado Republican. “This bill works like the Chicago-style Democrat machine.”
Democrats’ voting legislation, HR 1, has 226 sponsors in the House, more than enough support to pass should House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bring it to the floor for a vote.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill won’t clear his chamber. He said it ignores the problems of voter fraud, while making it harder for states and localities to clean up their voter rolls.
“It’s an attempt to rewrite the rules of American politics in order to benefit one side over the other,” said Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican.