Editorial: It’s up to Congress to preserve and protect the right to vote
In his inaugural address, President Biden spoke eloquently about how democracy was both precious and fragile. Biden was referring to the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol by crazed supporters of then-President Trump who were determined to prevent Congress from confirming Biden’s victory. But his words also apply, less dramatically, to efforts by Republican state legislators to prevent future Democratic successes by pushing for new restrictions on voting, some of them likely to disproportionately affect African American voters.
Supporters of these bills say they are needed to restore public confidence in “election integrity.” Never mind that it was Trump and his enablers who undermined that confidence with false claims that the 2020 election was stolen or illegitimate.
It’s imperative that Congress respond to these efforts to roll back voting rights by using its ample authority under the Constitution to set national standards for federal elections.
This month the House approved HR 1, a massive bill that contains several provisions deserving of enactment. They include requirements that states allow wide use of mail-in ballots, a minimum number of days of early voting and automatic voter registration — practices that are under attack in multiple states. The bill would also require states to follow California’s example and entrust the drawing of congressional district lines to independent commissions.
Predictably, Republicans are denouncing the legislation, arguing that the proposed changes would usurp states’ authority over elections. But the Constitution says not only that state legislatures shall determine the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections, but also that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” Indeed, Congress repeatedly has passed legislation to govern the conduct of federal elections. For example, it has decreed that members of the House be elected from individual districts.
As for presidential elections, it’s true that the Constitution empowers state legislatures to decide how members of the electoral college are chosen. But every state has decided to select them through a vote of the people. And Congress has the power under the 15th Amendment to ensure that the right to vote — including in presidential elections — isn’t abridged on the basis of race.
The bill’s opponents also contend that it would encourage fraud, echoing the Trumpian fantasy that measures that increase access to the ballot inexorably lead to that result. But HR 1 would actually bolster election integrity by requiring that states use paper ballots that can be preserved in case of disputes.
Finally, Republicans assert that making voting easier will benefit Democrats at the GOP’s expense. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) warned that HR 1 was “designed to put a thumb on the scale in every election in America so that Democrats can turn a temporary majority into permanent control.”
It’s true that in some key states Democrats were more likely to vote by mail in 2020 than Republicans. But that might have been a consequence of Trump demonizing remote voting. Historically, experts point out, voting by mail doesn’t create a huge advantage for either party.
But suppose measures to remove obstacles to voting actually did favor Democratic candidates — for example by making it easier for younger and minority voters to exercise the franchise. So what? Instead of complaining about that state of affairs, Republicans should ponder how they can widen their appeal to those groups.
With the Senate divided 50-50, it’s unlikely that even the least controversial proposals in HR 1 will be approved unless Senate Democrats abolish the filibuster — as they ought to do for all types of legislation. Even then, supporters of HR 1 likely would have to compromise on some of the bill’s proposals and defer others — such a new system for public financing of congressional elections and an ethics code for Supreme Court justices — for separate consideration.
But Senate Democrats need to press for enactment of the core provisions of the bill, and Congress also must pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. That legislation would reinvigorate a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear proposed changes in their election procedures in advance with the Justice Department or a federal court. That provision was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. The Lewis bill also would target on a nationwide basis practices that historically have been used to discriminate against minorities.
American democracy was under attack on Jan. 6, but it’s also threatened by attempts in state legislatures to undermine the right to vote and encumber it with needless regulations. Congress has the obligation to intervene. If no Republicans are willing to join that cause, Democrats must accomplish what they can on their own — not for their party but for the country.
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