March 5, 2019
H.R. 1: No Lawmaker Should Fear Eligible Voters Voting
Senior Fellow, Brennan Center for Justice and Distinguished Visitor from Practice, Georgetown University Law Center
UPDATE: H.R. 1 passed the House on March 8, 2019.
Democrats finally get it. After years of watching Republicans grab power and change the rules in their favor, Democrats have recognized that micro-policy responses are not good enough. Timed perfectly as Republicans were caught trying to steal a congressional seat in North Carolina, the Democrats are pushing a bill that would unrig democracy for everyone. Rather than a set of incremental policy proposals, H.R. 1 envisions systemic change.
H.R. 1 is an ambitious bill that protects democracy
It seeks to entrench democracy by modernizing and securing our voting system and strengthening voting rights, ending the dominance of big money in our politics, and enacting tougher systems to hold our public officials accountable and ensure they work for the people.
Here are a few of the highlights. The bill:
- Implements automatic and same-day voter registration
- Makes Election Day a holiday
- Imposes a requirement on candidates for president to disclose their tax returns
- Provides a match for small donations to campaigns
- Makes it illegal for companies with significant foreign ownership to contribute to campaigns
But the Republicans will have none of it. According to Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, “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. It should be called the Democrat Politician Protection Act.”
Despite what Republicans allege, this bill isn’t designed to protect Democrats. Instead, it protects democracy.
Attacks on democracy in North Carolina: Election fraud and obstacles to voting
North Carolina provides a snapshot of how Republicans have been seeking to subvert the democratic process around the country. It’s February 2019 and there’s a North Carolina House seat that still has not been filled after the November 2018 election. A new primary and general election is in the works after it was revealed that Mark Harris, the Republican candidate, achieved his apparent victory through fraudulent practices relating to absentee ballots.
Harris’s consultant, Leslie McCrae Dowless, Jr., has been accused of working with his stepdaughter to contact people who had applied for absentee ballots (which in North Carolina is public information) and offering to take the ballots from them, fill them in, and deliver them. On February 18, the head of the state board of elections, Kim Strach, informed the other members of the board that Dowless had distributed money to people to gather the ballots, which is a felony in North Carolina. Did these activities rig the election enough to require a do-over? The answer is yes.
Dowless was a known quantity who had already faced charges regarding absentee ballots in 2016 – and his tactics reveal something about how conservatives have been operating for some time, with an avowed determination to rewrite the rules of democracy in their favor. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain. It was an historic election nationally, but particularly so in North Carolina, which seemed to be trending blue after a turbulent, racist past. But the vote was close, and ever since, North Carolina has been a partisan battleground, with Republicans increasingly winning the upper hand. The momentary rise of the Left in 2008, buoyed by a charismatic candidate, masked how conservative forces had been plotting to hold power for the long term and thwart any move to expand democracy.
In 2010, Republicans recaptured both houses of the North Carolina state legislature and in 2012, the governorship. With total control of the state’s government, Republicans focused on locking in their power. They started by rigging election rules in their favor in one piece of legislation, dubbed the “monster law,” that changed the board of elections; redrew district lines to benefit the GOP; and made it harder to vote by limiting early voting, requiring photo IDs, and adding hurdles to the registration process, all with an eye to limiting access to the polls for people of color who tend to vote Democratic.
The Republicans even altered historically nonpartisan judicial elections to add party affiliation and gerrymandered those districts as well. While the courts have slowed down the efforts at racial and partisan gerrymandering, a couple of court decisions should not lead us to believe that the Right’s plan has failed. Even the election of a Democratic governor has done little to inhibit Republican efforts to rig the rules – Dowless is exhibit A.
State Republican lawmakers have pursued an agenda of voter suppression
Voter suppression and gerrymandering have given the Right the upper hand across the country. After the 2016 elections, Democrats hit a low in state legislatures they haven’t seen since Warren Harding was President in 1921. Republicans control 56 percent of state legislative seats, having made significant gains during the presidency of Barack Obama.
Over the course of Obama’s two terms, Republicans added almost 1,000 state legislative seats, gaining control of 67 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers. By 2017, in 24 states, Republicans had the governorship in addition to both legislative chambers while Democrats held total control in only five states — Hawaii, California, Oregon, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. While the 2017 and 2018 elections offer hope that the one-party nation has not yet arrived, a visceral and possibly transient anti-Donald Trump reaction is not going to fix our problems.
Republicans in key states across the country have been working feverishly to suppress the votes of those who might cast a ballot against them. That’s the whole purpose behind cynical campaigns for voter ID laws, the closing of polling locations in Democratic strongholds, and the elimination of early voting programs. They have also crafted a system that feeds incredible amounts of money into their campaign coffers, all of which is hidden from public view.
Stricter enforcement of campaign laws would tear open this rigged system, so the public could see who is actually providing the big bucks to help elect Republicans these days. Think Big Oil, anti-LGBTQ groups, anti-immigration groups, the NRA and, dare I say, monies funneled from foreign governments through third parties.
It’s a sad reflection on today’s Republican Party that they deem measures to protect the franchise and ban corruption “partisan.” It’s also very telling that the GOP views allowing more people to vote and stricter enforcement of campaign finance laws as a threat to their power. At the end of the day, Republicans have admitted that they can’t win without voter suppression and the assistance of dark money. Perhaps that’s because for several election cycles now, voter suppression and playing fast and loose with campaign finance law have been two key hallmarks of their electoral strategy.
No elected official should fear more eligible voters voting. It’s time to unrig the rules and fix our democracy. North Carolina shows how one party can manipulate the rules to lock in partisan gains. H.R. 1 would make sure the United States doesn’t go down that path.