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Democrats Seek Voting Rights, Campaign Spending Reforms


Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 4, 2019, about Introduction of H.R. 1 - For the People Act.

Americans’ faith in their government is near historic lows.

Just before the beginning of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, only 18 percent of Americans said they trusted Washington lawmakers to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time,” according to a Pew Research Center poll. Since then, public cynicism has grown even deeper, according to experts.

The new Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is making a sweeping attempt to address those concerns, with H.R. 1 “The People’s Act,” a bill designed to tackle what many see as lingering and corrosive problems in American democracy.

From changing the way candidates fund their campaigns and addressing foreign election interference to automatically registering voters and reversing a U.S. Supreme Court decision on voter suppression, this ambitious legislation would significantly alter many areas of the democratic process.

FILE - Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, arrives for the testimony of Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the internet giant's privacy security and data collection, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 11, 2018.
FILE - Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, arrives for the testimony of Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the internet giant's privacy security and data collection, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 11, 2018.

“The general arc of our nation’s politics over the last generation has made it easy to be cynical,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said Tuesday. “Easy to say that America has, in that time, increasingly tended toward an oligarchy, in which more and more of the political power is concentrated in fewer and fewer wealthy and powerful hands.”

The 2018 midterm election campaign fueled distrust in the electoral process amid reports of voter suppression in Georgia, Florida and elsewhere, and irregularities in absentee balloting in North Carolina.

McConnell sees ‘power grab’

But congressional Republicans say these reforms are an attempt by Democrats to centralize elections under federal oversight and are better left to state and local voting officials.

“They’re trying to clothe this power grab with clichés about ‘restoring democracy’ and doing it ‘For the People,’ but their proposal is simply a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in a Washington Post editorial published last week. “It should be called the Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined at left by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., speaks to reporters asking about the threat of another government shutdown following a strategy meeting in Washington, Jan. 29, 2019
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined at left by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., speaks to reporters asking about the threat of another government shutdown following a strategy meeting in Washington, Jan. 29, 2019

McConnell’s condemnation means the legislation has almost no chance of coming up for a vote in the U.S. Senate, which is firmly under the control of Republicans. The monthlong government shutdown delayed Democrats’ timeline for moving the bill through the House.

Four weeks into the new 116th Congress, the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing this week on some of the key issues in the bill.

Voter registration

Voters would be automatically registered to vote if the new bill is enacted. Currently, voter registration in the United States is voluntary. The bill would also make Election Day a federal holiday, helping free up some voters from work responsibilities so they can head to the polls. Critics of the provision say that would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.

FILE - Vanita Gupta, incoming president and CEO of The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 2, 2017, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on responses to the increase in religious hate crimes.
FILE - Vanita Gupta, incoming president and CEO of The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 2, 2017, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on responses to the increase in religious hate crimes.

Voting rights

The bill would institute a nationwide restoration of voting rights for an estimated 6.1 million people with felony convictions. The state of Florida recently restored those rights for 1.4 million of its residents. This bill would end the practice of that decision being made on varied criteria at the state level. These post-Civil War era practices “have a significant racial impact,” Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, testified.

“About one of every 13 African Americans in this country is denied the right to vote by these laws, a rate more than four times greater than all other Americans,” she said.

Voter suppression

The bill would bolster congressional oversight of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Key provisions of this act were overturned in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision. That ruling ended federal oversight of voting practices in states and local districts with a history of racially motivated voter discrimination.Civil rights advocates say claims of voter fraud often falsely assert Latino and black voters are voting illegally and use identification requirements to prevent them from voting.

Enhanced transparency

The president, vice president and candidates for those positions would also legally be required to release 10 years’ worth of their tax returns. This debate has received renewed attention following U.S. President Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, in contravention of custom of politicians running for higher office.

The legislation also includes a renewed push for the Honest Ads Act, a bill created last year after social media heads testified on Capitol Hill about Russian interference on Facebook and Twitter during the 2016 election. The bill would require companies to reveal funding sources for political ads on their platforms.

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The bill would create a new Department of Justice office, and impose new civil penalties, to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an existing law that requires people working in a political capacity to disclose financial ties to foreign governments. This law recently came into focus when former National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn was found to have violated it.

Campaign finance

Given concern about the role of big donors, a provision of HR 1 would institute public financing for campaigns while capping individual contributions at $200 apiece. The individual’s contribution would then be matched by federal government funds at a rate of 6-1. Supporters say this type of system magnifies the impact of individual voters, while critics say it limits free speech rights to support political causes.

Chances for passage

While hopes for the bill’s passage through both chambers of Congress remain slim, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said “this is an option that the House has given the Senate of the United States and the president of the United States to take action in support of the American people.”

The more likely outcome is that the bill will be broken up into separate pieces, allowing Republican lawmakers the opportunity to choose areas of compromise with Democrats.

“This is a losing issue for them,” Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, said of Republican opposition to the bill. “People want a restoration of their faith in American politics.”

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp

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