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House Approves Major Election Reform And Voting Rights Bill

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at an event for the For the People Act on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
Eric Baradat
AFP via Getty Images
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at an event for the For the People Act on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Updated at 12:50 p.m. ET on Thursday

The House has once again passed a bill aimed atprotecting and expanding voting rights and reforming campaign finance laws. The Wednesday night vote was 220-210. But the measure is not expected to advance in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority, and Republicans on Capitol Hill argue that the proposal is a political effort to federalize elections.

The action comes after voter access was a central issue in the 2020 elections, especially in states like Georgia and Arizona, where the presidential contest was tight. Former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies continue to promote false claims about ballot fraud, without any evidence. As some red states are moving to impose new restrictions, others states with Democratic-controlled statehouses are working to further expand access.

The 2021 For the People Act, HR1, is a reboot of a 2019 bill of the same name. At the time, the House passed the bill along party lines, but it never had a chance to move forward in the Senate, which was controlled then by Republicans.

The legislation seeks "to expand Americans' access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy, and for other purposes."

The bill's language calls for a complete overhaul of the current system, which varies widely by state and which critics say promotes unfair barriers to voting. Included in the act is mandatory automatic voter registration, restoring voting rights to people with completed felony sentences and a reversal of state voter ID laws that would allow citizens to make a sworn statement affirming their identity if they were unable to produce an ID.

President Biden praised the House action in a statement Thursday morning, saying it comes in "the wake of an unprecedented assault on our democracy."

He added that the right to vote is "sacred and fundamental" and said "this landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect that right, to safeguard the integrity of our elections and to repair and strengthen our democracy."

In addition to revamping voting laws, the bill also takes aim at "dark money" in politics by requiring organizations to disclose large donors, and it creates a matching system for small donations.

"Our democracy is in a state of deep disrepair. During the 2020 election, Americans had to overcome rampant voter suppression, gerrymandering and a torrent of special interest dark money just to exercise their right to vote. Across the country, people of all political persuasions — including Democrats, Independents and Republicans — are profoundly frustrated with the chaos, corruption and inaction that plague much of our politics," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Administration Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren and Rep. John Sarbanes said in a joint statement this year.

"That's why House Democrats are doubling down on our longstanding commitment to advance transformational anti-corruption and clean election reforms by again passing H.R. 1, the For the People Act."

House Democrats have fresh motivation to pass the bill. In the most recent election cycle, Senate Democrats were able to capture 50 of the Senate's 100 seats. Vice President Harris casts the final vote in the event of a tie, effectively giving Democrats a slim majority in the chamber. But that far from guarantees passage in the Senate.

Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., say they are determined to enact meaningful protections, but the issue is so bitterly divisive that Senate Democrats openly admit they do not see a path to getting 10 Republicans to back a bill to overcome a GOP filibuster. It's possible Democrats will bring up the measure to force a vote and make the point that they are being blocked.

Other Democrats are seizing on the Republican blockade on voting rights legislation to argue it's time to eliminate the legislative filibuster so that the Senate can approve bills with a simple majority. But the Democratic Party is so split on that issue that Schumer doesn't have the votes to take that dramatic step to overhaul the chamber's rules.

Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., announced after the House vote that her committee would hold a hearing on the issue on March 24 "so we can quickly advance these long-needed democracy reforms to ensure our government is of, by and for the American people."

The stakes are high for both parties as state rules could impact outcomes in the 2022 midterm elections and neither side sees any middle ground.

Republicans are fighting against efforts to simplify the voting process, and GOP-led state legislatures are in fact seeking to make it more difficult in dozens of states after the party's 2020 election losses.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case this week about two Arizona voting laws that aim to impose restrictions — and the court, which has a conservative majority, appears likely to uphold those limits.

GOP lawmakers cite election security as the reason for the efforts to tighten voter laws, but claims of widespread voter fraud are rooted in disinformation.

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Alana Wise joined WAMU in September 2018 as the 2018-2020 Audion Reporting Fellow for . Selected as one of 10 recipients nationwide of the Audion Reporting Fellowship, Alana works in the WAMU newsroom as part of a national reporting project and is spending two years focusing on the impact of guns in the Washington region.
Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.