House Democrats are engaged in a new push to pass comprehensive legislation this month they say is aimed at strengthening voting rights, fighting voter suppression and gerrymandering, and restricting the use of "dark money" in federal politics.
Republicans, however, have said during previous attempts to bring the legislation to a vote that it would give the federal government even more power in deciding the people's representation.
House Resolution 1, or the "For The People Act", is sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., and co-sponsored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.
In a statement on his House webpage, Sarbanes said the 2020 Election made his legislation even more important, claiming American voters were forced to "overcome rampant voter suppression, gerrymandering and a torrent of special-interest dark money just to exercise their vote and their voice in our democracy."
H.R. 1 would ensure "automatic" voter registration, require states to allow same-day voter registration on Election Day, and take aim at what are often Republican efforts to "purge" voter rolls of alleged inconsistencies and disparities, such as a recent exercise in Georgia that resulted in a contentious court battle.
The bill also includes an item prohibiting ineligible voters from being prosecuted for being "mistakenly registered."
The legislation -- first introduced two years ago -- would also give independent commissions the job of drawing congressional districts, require political groups to disclose high-dollar donors, create reporting requirements for online political ads, and, in a nod to Democrats' long-running complaint about former President Donald Trump, obligate presidents to disclose their tax returns.
Republican opposition was fierce during the last session. At the time, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., labeled it the "Democrat Politician Protection Act" and said in an op-ed that Democrats were seeking to "change the rules of American politics to benefit one party."
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also said of the 2019 iteration of the bill at the time that it presents a "massive federal government takeover that would undermine the integrity of our elections."
The subject of gerrymandering has become a contentious issue in recent years, including in 2018 when advocates successfully sought a mid-decade redrawing of Pennsylvania's congressional districts many said was tilted toward Republican representation.
The Democratic-majority State Supreme Court later struck down the map drawn from the 2010 decennial census and redrew the districts, resulting in a 9-9 split among the Commonwealth's 18 House lawmakers -- a decrease of 3 for the GOP from elections past.
The district of H.R. 1's sponsor, Sarbanes, has itself gained national attention for its own odd gerrymandered shape.
A federal circuit court judge once memorably dubbed Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, "a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state."
The district curves from northwest of Baltimore near Pikesville, into and around an eastern slice of the city, pivoting southwestward again through Elkridge, before making a final sweeping turn to the east past Fort Meade and ending in the capital of Annapolis.
Sarbanes' bill would enact state-based "independent redistricting commissions" to prevent such gerrymandering in the future.
H.R. 1 would also change the current policy regarding voting rights of felons on the federal level.
States like Virginia have in the past made their own changes to existing state policies regarding enfranchisement of ex-convicts. In 2019, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announced his administration had restored the voting rights of nearly 11,000 felons registered in the Old Dominion.
Sarbanes' bill would make it so that, unless they are currently behind bars, felons could not be prohibited from registering to vote.
Another aspect of H.R. 1 sure to receive Republican scrutiny is a section committing Congress to advocate for District of Columbia statehood. Republicans have argued such a decision would ensure two permanently Democratic U.S. Senate seats in what is an approximately nine-to-one Democrat-to-Republican jurisdiction.
Currently, it is represented by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who cannot vote on final legislation but can cast votes on amendments in committee settings.
"There are no constitutional, historical, fiscal, or economic reasons why the Americans who live in the District of Columbia should not be granted statehood," the legislation reads. It then lists various reasons why District residents should be enfranchised to the level of the 50 states, pointing to population and the size of its budget relative to states like Wyoming.
It also notes that a bill, the Washington DC Admission Act, passed the House in 2020 and that it would have provided for the physical federal district of Washington, D.C., to be reduced to just the federal buildings and installations like the White House and thereby form the "State of Washington; Douglass Commonwealth" from the remaining residential areas of the city.
The "For the People Act" would further prohibit states from enacting restrictive provisions on vote-by-mail efforts and require 15 days of early voting for federal elections nationwide.
In general, state election officials have been wary of federal voting requirements. But those serving in states led by Democrats have been more open and want to ensure Congress provides money to help them make system upgrades, which the bill does.
"If you still believe in what we all learned in high school government class, that democracy works best when as many eligible people participate, these are commonsense reforms," said Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat who oversaw California’s elections before being appointed to the seat formerly held by Vice President Kamala Harris.
But Republican officials like Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill remain opposed. Merrill said the federal government’s role is limited and that states must be allowed to innovate and implement their own voting rules.
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial written in opposition to the legislation warned that H.R. 1 is an exercise by Pelosi in "cementing Democratic political power," in association with a bill aimed to provide for Puerto Rican statehood.
"H.R.1 imposes California-style election rules nationwide. The bill requires every state to register voters based on names in state and federal databases—such as anyone receiving food stamps or who interacts with a state DMV," the board wrote. "Overall the bill is designed to auto-enroll likely Democratic voters, enhance Democratic turnout, with no concern for ballot integrity."
The board added that the campaign finance sections of the bill will simply limit the free speech of conservatives through the forced disclosure of donor names.
"The left’s pressure groups and media will then stigmatize donors," they allege.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.