Opinion: If Republicans can’t get behind an issue as fundamental as voting, Democrats must push through their bill
A group of Democrats has released the Freedom to Vote Act, a substantially pared-down version of the major voting legislation that Republicans successfully filibustered over the summer. Stripped of controversial provisions such as nationwide public campaign financing, the act would ensure access to the ballot box, promote impartial vote-counting and limit partisan gerrymandering. This bill is an outstretched hand to Republicans — indeed, to anyone who claims to care about democracy. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) immediately trashed it. Not a single Senate Republican appears interested in seriously engaging with Democrats in their effort to write compromise federal voting legislation.
The new bill would allow all voters — not just the sick and the elderly — to request absentee ballots. No-excuse mail-in voting has worked well in most states, but now that more Democrats are using the voting method, state-level Republicans have begun to crack down on it. Similarly, the act would require secure ballot drop boxes, another voter convenience Republicans have tried to limit or eliminate. The bill would make Election Day a holiday, require a minimum early voting period, institute automatic registration (when people get or renew their driver’s licenses), and mandate same-day registration for those who remain unregistered but who want to vote on Election Day.
The legislation would force “dark money” groups to disclose their donors, help states buy better voting equipment and require voter-verifiable paper ballots. It would establish federal safeguards against partisan politicians removing or pressuring local election officials. As state legislatures gear up to draw new legislative lines in the decennial redistricting process, the bill would also restrict gerrymandering and empower courts to strike down maps skewed by partisanship. States would have the option of establishing redistricting commissions; alternatively, state lawmakers could still draw legislative lines, but they could no longer draw districts with the primary aim of maximizing the representation of their own party in Washington.
There is no creditable argument against these provisions, at least not for anyone committed to majority rule. Mr. McConnell objects that states should set election rules. In fact, the Constitution explicitly grants Congress control over establishing federal election standards. Mr. McConnell’s argument is convenient for the GOP: Republicans control more state legislatures than Democrats. They have used their state-level power to impose waves of new voting restrictions and to make alarming moves toward interfering in vote counting. Federal legislation would preempt the more restrictive state rules Republicans believe will benefit them.
Situational ethics are not new in politics, except in this case the question is not whether to, say, expand the debt, but whether U.S. democracy will function fairly. Members of Congress should place loyalty to the nation’s system of government above their short-term partisan interests. But that would require the GOP to embrace better candidates and more popular policies, when Republicans would rather skew voting rules in their favor.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has promised a procedural vote on the compromise bill “very soon,” even as early as next week. If, as expected, Republicans unite against it, Democrats must stop negotiating with themselves on an issue as fundamental as voting. They should reform the Senate filibuster rule, which has shifted from an extraordinary procedure to a routine blocking maneuver, and try again.