Dems gave election reform top billing. Now what?
By CARL P. LEUBSDORF | The Dallas Morning News | Published: November 29, 2018
At the start of each Congress, the House majority party assigns the label H.R. 1 to a prime piece of legislation, a coveted designation that exemplifies its priorities for the coming two years.
In the outgoing Congress, Republicans assigned it to the tax cut bill that became the GOP’s signature legislative achievement. For the incoming House Democratic majority, the choice is a broad-ranging package of election reforms aimed at dealing with a multiplicity of problems that have arisen in recent years.
It includes restoration of a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act, a national voter registration system, restrictions on gerrymandering and a variety of election and ethics reforms including expanding conflict-of-interest laws to cover the president and the vice president, who are now exempted.
It’s a statement of “what Democrats stand for and are going to fight for,” the measure’s chief sponsor, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., told The Washington Post. “These are the reforms that will ultimately change the balance of power in Washington,” Sarbanes and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi declared in a separate Post op-ed.
That is, if they pass. For while the Democrats may have enough votes to pass them in the House, ultimate enactment is in doubt, given the likely opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump.
Still, there’s no doubt the nation’s election system needs major changes after another election that ended with widespread complaints from both parties, ranging from frustration over inefficient procedures to charges of fraud.
Last year, Trump created a commission to probe his unproven fraud allegations, but it collapsed amid partisan wrangling. More recently, defeated Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams announced she’d sue to improve the state’s voting procedures. But broader changes are needed to ensure all Americans can vote.
From all evidence to date, fraud is not the problem. For the past decade, various groups have sought without success to document the voter fraud Trump has trumpeted for years and some Democrats unfortunately echoed after close Georgia and Florida elections.
The real problem is that many states have outdated registration rolls and voting procedures that have failed to keep up with population growth. More than 110 million people voted this year, 12 million in California where some jurisdictions are still counting three weeks after the election.
Those numbers suggest some concerns about limiting voting are exaggerated. But more than half of eligible voters stayed home; cumbersome procedures and restrictive requirements are clearly one reason.
Much of the responsibility for fixing this lies with states where problems have persisted. This year’s poster child is Florida, where both parties have cited incompetent personnel and inadequate procedures.
But Congress can do something too, and that’s what House Democrats have in mind. Two portions of their bill deserve special attention.
The first would renew and update the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance procedures that the Supreme Court threw out in 2013 as outdated but urged Congress to fix. Their plan replaces the discarded section, which required pre-clearance for states designated in 1965 for past discrimination, with one covering states with violations in the past 25 years.
The new measure would affect Texas, Arizona, California, New York and nine Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Significantly, all have sizable minority populations.
Without the pre-clearance provision, many states including Texas have enacted restrictive voter ID laws and other provisions that critics say were designed to limit voting by minorities. House Republicans ignored proposals to update the 1965 act.
Enactment now remains problematic, since it requires not only House passage but support from a bipartisan Senate majority and Trump’s signature. Even if passed, implementation by this administration’s Justice Department is questionable.
The second would establish a national voter registration system designed to end some of the controversies over bloated voter rolls and improper state actions to cleanse them.
Eligible citizens who interact with government agencies, such as applying for a driver’s license or veterans’ benefits, would be automatically registered to vote unless they decline. The agencies would transfer the voter registration information electronically to state elections officials.
Already, 36 states plus the District of Columbia have adopted the system at local motor vehicle offices. And 38 states plus D.C. allow online voter registration and enable voters to check and update their records on a secure online portal.
The oft-proposed plan to create a small-donor public financing system is a likely nonstarter due to fierce Republican opposition. Unfortunately, so too is requiring corporations, labor organizations, Super PACs and other groups spending in elections to disclose their donors.
By putting election reform atop their legislative agenda, and pledging measures to fix Obamacare, curb drug prices and improve the nation’s decaying infrastructure, Democrats hope to show they plan to legislate as well as investigate with their newly won power.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.