WASHINGTON (CN) – A measure to put election district lines in the hands of independent commissions and other voting reforms took center stage at a packed House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, where it was vehemently opposed by GOP lawmakers as an overreach of federal powers.
The hearing was standing-room only, prompting House Democrat Steve Cohen of Tennessee to halt opening remarks and inform attendees that “this is the largest, hugest crowd” he’s seen for a day-one hearing in the committee.
House Resolution 1, a bill widely touted by Democrats, covers a wide swath of measures including provisions to make voter registration easier, prevent gerrymandering and more strictly regulate the role of money in politics.
While ranking member Doug Collins, R-Ga., did find a point of agreement with the bill’s call for a set of ethics guidelines for U.S. Supreme Court justices, divisions between Democrats and Republicans were stark when it came to provisions on voting.
“The official title of this bill is the ‘For the People Act.’ This bill, though, is not for the people,” Collins said in his opening statements. “This bill siphons power from state legislatures, local elected officials and voters, and it cedes power to Washington lawmakers, unelected federal judges and lawyers.”
Republicans on the committee focused on the shift of power taken from states, which they said have constitutional rights to handle elections.
For their part, Democrats insisted the bill would cut through rampant and historical voter suppression and gerrymandering that threaten fair representation in democracy.
In his expert testimony, Christian Adams of the right-wing Public Interest Legal Foundation insisted it’s never been easier to vote, that it is actually “harder to avoid opportunities to vote” when you have the ability to register from your front porch, drug treatment facilities and even at popular music festivals like Lollapalooza.
“Decentralized elections are more democratic,” he said, because they are run closer to the voters and are at less risk for manipulation.
But another expert witness, Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, painted a different story, referencing cases of her own clients who found themselves unable to vote due to inactive-voter purges and a lack of access to voter registration.
Representative Karen Bass, D-Calif., referencing Ifill’s examples, clapped back at Adam’s assertion.
“You said it’s easy to vote, there are not problems, why are people interfering with this,” she said. “If that’s the case then why did the incidents that [Ifill] described happen?”
Adams, in a heated back-and-forth with Bass, called voter purges “reasonable maintenance” of the voter registration system.
When Bass turned her gaze to another Republican expert witness, Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, she asked if he believed Ifill’s evidence to be “fiction,” to which he replied that he believed it was “wildly exaggerated.”
Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., called the hearing to order as Bass and von Spakovsky, voices raised, fought for the floor.
“It’s this kind of shading of the truth, shading of the reality of what it takes for lawyers and communities to challenge discriminatory voting practices, is the reason why we need HR 1,” Ifill said. “If we have a long history of voter fraud in this country we have a longer history of racism and voter disenfranchisement.”
While the bill wouldn’t have made it far in last year’s Republican-led Congress, it may hold more water in the Democratic-controlled House.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said HR 1 won’t go beyond the House, rejecting it as a Democratic “power grab” in a Washington Post op-ed two weeks ago. In a statement on the Senate floor Tuesday, he called the bill the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”
Among its provisions, the anti-corruption bill would take aim at big money by requiring disclosure of super PAC private donors and those who buy political ads from tech giants like Facebook and Google. The Federal Elections Commission would be upped from four to five members. Under HR 1, the Supreme Court would also receive its first code of ethics.
In addition, the bill takes aim at voter discrimination and suppression, ushering in a new automated voter registration “opt-out” system, rather than “opt-in,” and would end the ban on convicted felons voting.
It would also prevent voter-roll purging, including a halt on removing voters from the registry if they have non-forwardable email addresses.
To prevent gerrymandering, HR 1 takes district drawing out of the hands of the states and gives that authority to independent committees.