WASHINGTON — House Democrats passed sweeping voting and campaign finance legislation over unanimous Republican opposition, advancing to the Senate what would be the largest overhaul of the U.S. election law in at least a generation.
H.R. 1, which touches on virtually every aspect of the electoral process, was approved Wednesday night on a near party-line 220-210 vote. It would restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strike down hurdles to voting and bring transparency to a murky campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to anonymously bankroll political causes.
The bill is a counterweight to voting rights restrictions advancing in Republican-controlled states in the wake of Donald Trump’s repeated false claims of a stolen 2020 election. Yet it faces an uncertain fate in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it has little chance of passing without changes to procedural rules that currently allow Republicans to block it.
The stakes in the outcome are monumental, carrying with it the potential to shape election outcomes for years to come. It also offers a test of how hard President Joe Biden and his party are willing to fight for their priorities, as well as those of their voters.
In a statement, Biden said he looked forward to refining the measure and hoped to sign it into law, calling it “landmark legislation” that is much needed “to repair and strengthen our democracy.”
To Republicans, however, it would give license to unwanted federal interference in states’ authority to conduct their own elections, ultimately benefiting Democrats through higher turnout, most notably among minorities.
“Democrats want to use their razor-thin majority not to pass bills to earn voters’ trust, but to ensure they don’t lose more seats in the next election,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said from the House floor Tuesday.
Both of Maine’s Democratic U.S. representatives, Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Jared Golden of the 2nd District, backed the measure. Golden, a swing-district sophomore who bucked his party in high-profile votes this week on Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill and a police reform bill, has long backed this campaign finance and voting overhaul.
“The corrupting force of money in politics and in government operations can only be cleaned up if we find the political will to clean it up ourselves,” Golden said in a Tuesday news conference.
The measure has been a priority for Democrats since they won their House majority in 2018. But it has taken on added urgency in the wake of Trump’s false claims, which incited the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol in January.
The Iowa Legislature voted to cut absentee and in-person early voting, while preventing local elections officials from setting up additional early-voting locations. In Georgia, the House on Monday backed legislation requiring identification to vote by mail that would also allow counties to cancel early in-person voting on Sundays, when many Black voters cast ballots after church.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court appeared ready to uphold voting restrictions in Arizona, which could make it harder to challenge state election laws in the future. When asked why proponents sought to uphold the Arizona laws, a lawyer for the state’s Republican Party was clear.
“Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” said attorney Michael Carvin. “Politics is a zero-sum game.”
Battle lines are quickly being drawn by outside groups who plan to spend millions of dollars on advertising and outreach campaigns.
H.R. 1 would require states to automatically register eligible voters, as well as offer same-day registration. It would limit states’ ability to purge registered voters from their rolls and restore former felons’ voting rights. Among dozens of other provisions, it would also require states to offer 15 days of early voting and allow no-excuse absentee balloting.
On the cusp of a once-in-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries, typically a fiercely partisan affair, the bill would mandate that nonpartisan commissions handle the process instead of state legislatures.
Many Republican opponents in Congress have focused on narrower aspects, like the creation of a public financing system for congressional campaigns that would be funded through fines and settlement proceeds raised from corporate bad actors. They’ve also attacked an effort to revamp the Federal Election Commission, which has been gripped by partisan deadlock for years, allowing campaign finance law violators to go mostly unchecked.
House Republicans’ campaign arm jumped on Golden’s vote in a news release putting him among a group of vulnerable Democrats “putting their own self-interest before the American people by funneling more than $7 million in public funds to their reelection campaigns.”
Another section that’s been a focus of Republican ire would force the disclosure of donors to “dark money” political groups, which are a magnet for wealthy interests looking to influence the political process while remaining anonymous.
Still, the biggest obstacles lie ahead in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats. On some legislation, it takes only 51 votes to pass, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. On a deeply divisive bill like this one, they would need 60 votes under the Senate’s rules to overcome a Republican filibuster — a tally they are unlikely to reach.
Story by Brian Slodysko. Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro and Bangor Daily News writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.