When Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, spoke on the Senate floor last month after a Democratic-led voting bill failed a procedural vote in the Senate along partisan lines, he did not hold back about his concerns over the future of American elections.
“There has been a great deal of talk in recent months of a possible constitutional crisis in 2022 or 2024,” King said. “Mr. President, we don’t have to wait that long; we are in the midst of such a crisis right now.”
The bill that had just failed, the Freedom to Vote Act, would have required states to adopt many voting practices Maine already follows, while requiring some changes to election administration here as well. But the legislation encountered fierce partisan backlash in Congress, with every Republican, including Sen. Susan Collins, opposing it. A narrower voting rights bill failed a few weeks later.
It highlights the challenge Democrats have faced as they attempt to pass federal voting legislation, a longstanding ambition of the party that many see as more urgent in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump refused to acknowledge his loss while making allegations about voter fraud that courts consistently rejected.
Those allegations, coupled with a rash of new voting practices amid the COVID-19 pandemic, spawned a range of new voting laws in Republican-held states in the past year, including some that limited the use of mail-in voting or ballot drop boxes on the basis of preventing voter fraud. Democrats have derided those laws as attempts to make voting harder under the guise of election integrity.
“It’s not obvious. They’re not passing laws saying Black people can’t vote, or we’re gonna have a poll tax, but the net result is likely voter suppression,” King said in an interview.
While Democrats speak about the need to pass voting rights legislation in apocalyptic terms, they haven’t yet resorted to the procedural change that would allow them to use their slim congressional majorities to actually pass the legislation — eliminating the Senate filibuster that effectively requires 60 votes to pass any legislation.
Without that procedural change, Democrats would need to find compromise with lawmakers like Collins. But she has remained steadfast in her opposition to the proposals, decrying the legislation as a “federal takeover” of elections that would force changes in states like Maine, where officials of both parties generally agree that election administration is not controversial.
“If we’re doing it well and we have one of the highest voter turnouts in the country, then why would we want the federal government to come in and dictate how we run our elections?” Collins said in an interview last month.
Maine’s top election official, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, said she does not see the bill as a takeover of elections, but as setting standards that all states have to follow. That is not different, she argued, from previous federal legislation, pointing to a bipartisan bill passed in 2002 that instituted voter ID requirements for voters registering by mail and required states to adopt a central voter registration system.
Bellows, a Democrat, has been among the state election officials advocating for the Freedom to Vote Act, including by testifying in a congressional panel earlier this year about Maine’s experience with same-day voter registration and no-excuse-needed absentee voting.
“It shouldn’t be easier to vote in Maine than it is to vote in Mississippi, or Texas, or Georgia,” she said.
The wide-ranging bill includes some provisions already in place in Maine, including a requirement that states adopt automatic voter registration (which Maine enacted in 2019), same-day voter registration (which Maine has had since 1973) and online voter registration (which Maine will launch in 2023).
States would also be required to to enact no-excuse mail-in or absentee voting, which Maine already has, and they would be required to accept ballots postmarked by Election Day that arrive later, which Maine does not currently allow. The bill would also require towns with more than 3,000 registered voters to offer at least 10 hours of early voting daily for two weeks before Election Day, including weekends — substantially longer hours than what Maine towns currently offer.
Collins cited the early voting and absentee ballot changes as problems with the bill in a statement Wednesday, saying the former would burden towns while the latter would delay the counting of votes, particularly with ranked-choice voting.
She cited concerns that the voting rights bill would make it harder for towns to defend themselves in potentially frivolous lawsuits, and that its provisions requiring jurisdictions with significant minority populations to seek federal approval for certain election changes would apply to municipalities in Maine, including Lewiston.
King said in an interview this week that he remains open to negotiating with Republican senators, but said there had been “no counteroffer” since the legislation came up short. He also backs reforming the filibuster in some capacity, saying Republicans were using the 60-vote threshold to obstruct rather than allow for debate — but such changes would require the vote of every member in the Democratic caucus, and the majority party does not seem to have that right now.
He maintains that a failure by Congress to address voting in some capacity comes at a risk to the country’s democratic institutions, pointing to the rise of authoritarian leaders in other countries as examples of the potential danger.
“Americans tend to think that the way things are is the way they will always be,” King said, “and so I’m trying to sort of sound the alarm that what we have is fragile.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of towns that would have to offer more early voting hours under the Freedom to Vote Act.