Senate Democrats this week moved to advance a pair of election bills they say are necessary to protect the right to vote but that contain some provisions that go beyond expanding ballot access.
Democrats opened Senate debate Tuesday on legislation merging two voting bills — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act — that have already passed the House.
The legislation is likely doomed, however, due to unified Republican opposition to the reforms and an unwillingness from two centrist Democrats to bend Senate rules to get the bill through.
Here are some of the changes the bill would require.
The Freedom to Vote Act would expand voting by mail nationwide, prohibiting states from placing any limits on who can request a mail-in ballot.
The bill would mandate no-excuse absentee voting, which allows anyone to request an absentee ballot for any reason.
Sixteen states currently require a voter to provide a reason for voting by mail, such as having an illness or being physically away from their country during the voting period, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That includes New York, where the state’s mostly Democratic voters soundly rejected a ballot initiative in November that proposed implementing no-excuse absentee voting.
Democrats’ proposals would require election officials across the country to accept and count a mail-in ballot that arrives as late as seven days after Election Day, provided it was postmarked by Election Day.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would give the Justice Department significant authority over how and when individual states can change their voting laws.
The legislation would undo the effects of a 2013 Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder, which effectively ended a practice established by the 1965 Voting Rights Act known as preclearance.
Preclearance requires states that have been flagged as having previously restricted voting rights to submit any election changes to the Justice Department for review before those changes can take effect. It was instituted during the Civil Rights era, when some states had a recent history of explicitly discriminatory voting practices, such as literacy tests.
The Supreme Court found in its 2013 ruling that the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act was no longer relevant to today’s environment and that it used abuses committed decades ago to restrict what only some states, but not others, could do to their election laws.
Democrats want to rewrite the rules that determine which states have to seek Justice Department approval for their laws to include changes made in the past 25 years.
More significantly, Democrats have proposed redefining what constitutes a violation of voting rights to include some practices, such as voter ID laws, that are relatively widespread.
The result could give the federal government oversight over the laws of a significant number of states — especially Republican states, such as Georgia and Texas, that have pursued laws since 2020 that sought to roll back the emergency provisions implemented during the pandemic that lawmakers no longer see necessary for future elections.
The Freedom to Vote Act would stop states from drawing congressional maps that favor one party over the other, requiring states to use a specific formula for redistricting.
Democrats’ proposals would blunt the effects of a 2019 Supreme Court ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause that placed most questions about partisan gerrymandering beyond the reach of federal courts — framing them as part of a political process, not a judicial one.
The way many states draw their congressional maps every 10 years could be significantly altered by the Democratic bill, which would force states to consider race, the results of past elections, and whether one party’s candidate would face a disadvantage in future elections when determining new districts.
States presently have the freedom to determine their own criteria for setting the boundaries of congressional districts, and many leave the process up to elected officials in the state legislatures, which proponents of partisan redistricting say give voters more of a voice in the drafting of their state’s congressional maps.
Unlike the Freedom to Vote Act’s more expansive predecessor bill — the For the People Act, which failed last year — the newer proposal does not require states to use nonpartisan commissions to draw the maps and will still leave the task to legislatures in the states that rely on them. The bill’s criteria will limit what the legislatures can do, however.
Campaign finance reform
Democrats’ voting bills would force political groups to name their donors if the group spends more than $10,000 in an election cycle, expanding the criteria that triggers donor disclosure rules.
Political groups can currently accept virtually limitless amounts of money and spend it during election cycles if they aren’t advocating specifically for or against a candidate but are instead spending it to advocate for or against a policy issue.
The disclosure requirements in the Freedom to Vote Act would go after so-called “dark money” by requiring even issue-focused groups to disclose their donors in many circumstances — a provision that goes well beyond reforming voting laws.
Opponents of these types of reforms argue the new disclosure rules would harm freedom of speech by creating a potential chilling effect for donors, whose identities would now be exposed and who could be subject to harassment.
Taxpayer dollars for elections
Through a voluntary program called the Democracy Credit Program, the Freedom to Vote Act would provide voters with $25 vouchers that they could donate to campaigns for House races in chunks of $5. It would also create a small-dollar financing program for House candidates.
Proponents of creating programs at the federal level for campaigns have argued the money wouldn’t directly come from taxpayers but from fines paid to the government in certain civil and criminal cases.
However, opponents of the programs claim the money from the fines would have gone to cover other costs that will require taxpayer funding and therefore the programs are ultimately funded by taxpayer dollars.