Republicans block 'power grab for the people'

Ballot clerk Lorna Smith smiles as she says 'thanks for voting' as she hands a voter a ballot at the polling station at the Groton Public Library in November, 2018.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Ballot clerk Lorna Smith smiles as she says "thanks for voting" as she hands a voter a ballot at the polling station at the Groton Public Library in November, 2018. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

In all the noise coming out of Washington last week you may have missed news of a historic vote in the House of Representatives.

The “For the People Act,” proposes "to expand Americans' access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants." The House passed the sweeping anti-corruption and voting rights bill Friday on a 234-193 vote.

The campaign finance reforms create incentives for congressional candidates to rely on small donors over large corporate contributions. Tax credits are offered for contributors making small donations. For candidates accepting campaign spending limits, matching funds are offered for small donations. New disclosure requirements are mandated to identify the source of donor money.

This is great stuff to reduce the influence of big money in politics.

"It's a power grab for the American people," Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., aptly put it.

The voting-rights provisions expand early voting, create same-day voter registration in states that don’t have it (Connecticut does), and protect eligible voters from being purged. The bill makes Election Day a holiday for federal workers and provides cybersecurity protections for the voting machines.

The ethics reforms require candidates for president and vice president to disclose their income tax returns. The bill tightens the ethical guidelines for federal employees and strengthens regulations over foreign agent campaign participation.

The most dramatic provision addresses partisan gerrymandering by requiring that states create independent redistricting commissions to fairly draw new congressional maps.

Gerrymandering happens when the majority party in a state legislature designs its congressional districts to benefit their party. This corruption, long practiced by both parties but now aided in precision by computer data, has been the main contributor to a breakdown of bipartisanship in the House. Most of 435-member districts are drawn as “safe” seats for either a Democrat or a Republican.

As a striking example of that breakdown, the vote on the For the People Act received unanimous support from Democratic members. Every Republican voted against the bill.

At least in the House, Republicans went on record with their vote. That’s not going to happen in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t bring the bill to a vote. The Kentucky senator sarcastically labeled the legislation a "Democrat Politician Protection Act." McConnell criticized the bill as socialist, a suppression of free speech, and a Democratic attempt at a federal takeover of state election laws.

Why, one might ask, would congressional Republicans unanimously oppose greater voter participation, ballot box cybersecurity against tampering, greater government ethics, and reducing special-interest influence in campaigns?

Why, one might also ask, would Republicans oppose fixing a federal election process many Americans view as perversely flawed? A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last fall found that reducing corruption and special-interest influence in campaigns was considered very important by 77 percent of respondents.

This might be why. States with Republican-majority legislatures successfully have suppressed voter counts among groups they consider not ideologically aligned toward their party. They have enacted restrictive voter identification laws, purged voter rolls and reduced voting locations.

Republicans have refined gerrymandering efforts into a precise science. They cluster Democratic voters into a few crazily-drawn districts and redraw most of the state’s congressional seats to advantage GOP candidates.

The For the People Act has its flaws. The federal worker holiday is clearly geared to benefit Democrats. It raises states' rights issues. Many specifics are begging for critical debate and compromise. But Republicans show no interest in discussing how to improve elections and participation.

The bill stands no chance of becoming law while Mitch McConnell controls the Senate. McConnell views his job as majority leader to preserve, protect and enhance Republican political advantage.

However, by passing the legislation in the House, Democrats have seized the high ground as the reform party advocating voting rights, ballot-box security, and reducing special-interest influence.

McConnell and his fellow Republicans find themselves in the uncomfortable position of defending a status quo that has worked well for them, but that many Americans correctly conclude is corrupt.

The For the People Act is destined to die this time around. But it is a powerful political message that Democrats will carry into the 2020 election. The bill is a ringing declaration of values that the country would do well to adopt. Eventually it will.

Clean elections, accountable elected officials, and level playing fields for voters to choose their candidates are all good for a democracy. Those values should be universally shared. They should not be another fissure in the partisan divide.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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