Senate Committee Clashes over Sweeping Election Reform Bill

 

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Lawmakers failed to advance the For the People Act out of committee, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is expected to bring the bill to the floor anyhow.

Republican and Democratic senators clashed Tuesday as lawmakers considered dozens of amendments to a sweeping election reform proposal, many of which were meant to address concerns raised by state and local elections officials.

The Senate Rules Committee held an hours-long markup of S.1 For the People Act, a Democrat-backed bill that seeks to standardize many elements of early voting and voter registration across the United States. While the House passed a version of the proposal in March, the bill’s future in the Senate remains in doubt due to partisan divide. 

The evenly split Rules Committee deadlocked in a 9-9 vote on the bill and did not report it out of committee. However, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised to bring the proposal to the floor for debate and a vote. A series of amendments also failed on party-line votes, underscoring partisan divide on the larger issue.

Several states, including Georgia, Florida and on Tuesday Arizona, have enacted new restrictions this year on voter access. Democrats point to the wave of state legislation that aims to restrict voter access as the driving need behind the federal legislation. The Brennan Center for Justice has identified more than 350 election-related bills introduced by state lawmakers that include restrictive provisions.

“The For the People Act is about setting basic national standards to make sure all Americans can vote safely in the way that works best for them, regardless of what state or zip code they live in,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat and the chairwoman of the committee, at the outset of Tuesday’s hearing.

But Republicans said the bill amounts to a blatant power grab that overrides the expertise of state and local elections officials.

“Most Americans agree that voting is already pretty easy,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, the ranking Republican on the committee. “Yet we find ourselves here being asked to support a federal takeover of elections that would force a Washington, D.C., one-size-fits-all approach on every voting precinct in every state for elections that begin less than a year from now.”

The House approved a version of the bill in March in a 220-210 vote that saw one Democrat join Republicans who voted against it. 

Fight Over Amendments

Among the amendments that failed to pass was Klobuchar’s revised version of the bill, which she said would have incorporated numerous suggestions from state and local elections officials. The proposal specifically would have given states more time (up to two years) to implement elements of the bill such as same-day-voter registration and automatic voter registration. It also would have tasked the Department of Homeland Security with developing a ballot-tracking system that state and local elections officials could use so they would not have to set up their own systems to track absentee ballots.

“Some of the changes reflect real concerns elections officials have about the bill,” Blunt said of Klobuchar’s amendment. “But giving states more time to implement bad policy doesn’t make the policy less bad.”

Other amendments that were ultimately approved by the committee include:

  • Tasking the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency with issuing security guidelines on election cybersecurity.
  • Requiring the U.S. Postal Service, to the extent possible, to process and clear mail ballots from facilities on the same day they are received.
  • Allowing states to restrict the voting rights of felons convicted of murder or crimes against children even after they are released from prison.

The original version of the bill would have guaranteed the restoration of federal voting rights for convicted felons who have served their sentences.  

Democrats, Republicans Spar Over Bill

The debate over how to revamp elections to ensure they are both safe and secure comes after many states dramatically expanded early and absentee voting options during the coronavirus pandemic. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, former President Trump made false claims that the election was stolen.

Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sparred over the bill, with each accusing the other party of trying to use election laws to increase its own power.

“When you lose an election, you try to persuade more voters to vote for you,” Schumer said. “You don’t try to ban the other side from voting.”

Noting that the bill would change the makeup of the now evenly divided Federal Election Commission to give one party control, McConnell said the Democrats’ bill is a blatant “attempt to stack the deck.”

“The Democratic Party, on its own, wants to rewrite the ground rules of American politics for their benefit,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine anything that would erode public confidence in our democracy more drastically.”

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