Democrats are making a renewed push to get federal voting legislation through the closely divided Senate, a move President Joe Biden continues to advocate.
Two voting bills are being weighed in the Senate.
The first is a wide-ranging measure called the Freedom to Vote Act, a compromise bill crafted by Senate Democrats after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he wouldn’t support a more expansive House bill, the For the People Act. That bill, which was first introduced in 2019 — before the latest surge of restrictive bills passed by Republican legislatures — included a lengthy list of Democratic priorities.
The second bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, is an update to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, signed on as a co-sponsor. A version of the legislation has already passed the House.
Democrats say passing a voting bill is imperative. Fueled by former President Donald Trump’s stolen election lie, 19 states passed restrictive voting laws last year, and some legislatures are expected to consider more this year.
Both bills have the support of all 50 Democrats and independents in the Senate, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised to bring both up for votes before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday. But without the support of 10 Republicans, whose votes would be needed for the legislation to clear the 60-vote threshold, the legislation is likely to fail.
Democrats say they will then pivot to try to change the Senate rules to kill the 60-vote requirement, a move Biden endorsed Tuesday. But the move is unlikely to get the support of all 50 Democratic-voting senators it needs to pass.
Here’s what’s in the proposals:
National standards for voting access
The Freedom to Vote Act would create a set of standards for federal elections to ensure that voters have similar access to the ballot box across the country.
Advocates say the provisions would neutralize the restrictions to the ballot box that many states have advanced in the last year and are considering advancing this year, while also establishing standards that would make U.S. elections look more similar from state to state.
States would be required to offer a minimum number of days of early voting and the ability to vote by mail for any reason. Some of the recently enacted restrictions have limited early voting hours and days.
After mail-in voting was heavily relied upon during the coronavirus pandemic, Republican-controlled states — some of which already limited mail-in voting to people with excuses like medical conditions or travel — imposed new requirements and regulations.
If states choose to require voter ID, the bill would create a national standard of acceptable forms; the standard would allow a wider range of identifying documents — and electronic copies — than some states with strict voter ID laws now permit.
The bill would also make Election Day a national holiday, which advocates say would make it easier for people to vote. Others have warned that it would again disproportionately make it harder for shift workers and those with child care concerns to cast ballots.
To crack down on long lines, which have historically disproportionately affected communities of color, the bill would require states to keep voting lines to 30 minutes or less. The Justice Department used to review polling site closures that can lead to long lines under the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court gutted it in 2013; since then, hundreds of polling sites have closed down in Southern states.
The bill would also create or increase penalties for intimidating and deceiving voters to counteract misinformation and disinformation about elections, which have run rampant since 2020.
The Freedom to Vote Act would restore federal voting rights to people with felony convictions after they have been released from prison. State-level limits on voting by ex-felons prevented more than 2 million people from voting in 2020, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization. In Florida, voters sought to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions, only for the Republican Legislature to reimpose restrictions.
Voter registration would also become easier in many states, which would be required to offer online registration and automatic registration at state motor vehicle agencies. States would also have to allow Election Day voter registration at polling places, which Republicans say they fear would create opportunities for voter fraud and confusion at the polls.
The Freedom to Vote Act would also outlaw partisan gerrymandering in congressional maps and require neutral redistricting standards for all states and mandate transparency in the process. That would be likely to fuel legal challenges in states that have already enacted new legislative maps for this year’s elections and force states that haven’t yet drawn their maps to adopt the new standards.
Protecting election workers and records, and giving legal recourse
The Freedom to Vote Act would make it a federal crime to intentionally harass, intimidate, threaten or coerce election officials, poll workers and election volunteers for doing their jobs. In a survey of election workers last year, about 1 in 3 reported feeling unsafe because of their jobs; 1 in 6 said they have been threatened, as well.
Conservative critics have argued that the legislation could intimidate partisan poll watchers, who monitor election officials’ work.
The bill would also reaffirm voters’ ability to sue in federal court if they believe their votes or the right of those votes to be fairly counted have been infringed upon, which advocates say they believe would give voters recourse against election subversion. Advocates hope the measure would instruct federal courts to continue enforcing voting access.
Election records and paper ballots would be subject to new requirements and regulations to keep election materials from being used in partisan ballot reviews like the one in Maricopa County, Arizona, after the 2020 election. Those machines were later decertified by Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs because of the work of inexperienced third-party contractors. Official audits, however, would be required after elections to boost public trust and transparency.
Campaign finance reform
While the Freedom to Vote Act is often discussed as a reform of voting and election administration, as well as a response to Republican-advanced restrictions, it would also address a longtime Democratic priority, campaign finance laws.
To curb the effect of anonymous money in elections, the bill would require the disclosure of major donors by entities that spend more than $10,000 in an election reporting cycle while also subjecting super PACs to new rules to keep their operations separate from campaigns.
Campaign finance limits have been a wish-list policy item for Democrats since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 lifted limits on campaign contribution by corporations. Republicans oppose limits as an infringement of free speech, but they have been open to increased disclosure rules.
The bill would also create a small-dollar donor matching program for House candidates who opt in, seemingly an effort to empower smaller donors.
The Federal Election Commission, which has been stymied by partisan gridlock, would be reworked to be less dependent on a majority of the commission to approve new investigations and to instead allow the commission’s general counsel to investigate and issue subpoenas.
Update the Voting Rights Act
A separate and much narrower bill would update the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A House version of the legislation, named for John Lewis, the civil rights leader who served in Congress for more than 30 years and died in 2020, passed the House in August. Murkowski and other senators updated the bill in the Senate in November.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was landmark legislation that barred discriminatory election laws and gave the Justice Department the authority to challenge new state laws in jurisdictions with histories of discrimination before they were implemented, through a process known as preclearance.
In 2013, the Supreme Court said in Shelby County v. Holder that the formula used to decide which states were subject to preclearance was unconstitutional; the bill would update the formula, subjecting states with at least 15 voting rights violations over 25 years — or 10 if one of them was committed by the state itself — to the process. A state could remove itself from the preclearance process if it avoided violations for a decade.
At the time of the Shelby decision, all or part of 15 states were subject to preclearance. Wendy Weiser, an expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October that seven states — Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — and Cook County, Illinois, would qualify for preclearance, with a long list of voting rights violations among them. Alabama and Florida are “on the cusp” of qualifying, she added.
The bill would also make it easier for advocates to successfully sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, bolstering the law’s protections for groups of voters who are disproportionately harmed by voting rules; the Supreme Court limited the use of Section 2 in a ruling last year.
The bill would also adds a Native American Voting Rights Act, which includes a number of provisions to make it easier for voters on tribal lands. The bill would require states to offer polling sites and voter registration on tribal lands.