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What's in, What's out - Democrats' New Voting Bill Short on Republican Sweeteners

This week, Senate Democrats introduced a new, narrower election reform bill following the stalling of S.1, the For the People Act back in June. The For the People Act was a broad democracy reform bill encompassing election administration, voting rights, redistricting, campaign finance and advertising, and government ethics, among other topics. This new bill, the Freedom to Vote Act (FTVA), is the product of negotiations among Senate Democrats, with the aim of securing bipartisan agreement on improvements to our election system. 

The FTVA addresses a distinctly narrower set of issues than the wide sweeping For the People Act, but what remains from the previous bill is largely similar. The FTVA also includes critical new provisions that were conspicuously missing in previous bills. Even with the progress of these changes, the bill is unlikely to garner bipartisan agreement given how little it reflects Republican priorities on these issues. 

What’s Out 

  • Ethics: Drops the division pertaining to ethics, which many Republicans viewed solely as a targeted response to former President Trump’s campaigns and administration.  
  • Campaign finance: Scales back campaign finance related sections, such as the federal small donor matching system for congressional elections, though same remain, including related to increasing campaign finance disclosures, which has been opposed by Republicans in the past. 

What’s New 

  • Funding: FTVA authorizes funding for election administration, including $3 billion for automatic voter registration. It also proposes a state election innovation fund drawing from federal criminal and civil penalty sources. Still, the amounts authorized are likely not sufficient assistance for implementation of all the bill’s new requirements. 
  • Protections for Election Workers: In response to the rapid rise in threats to election officials and workers surrounding the 2020 election, FTVA would criminalize such harassment and threats. It would also create a path in federal court to challenge the removal of local election officials, though, this is likely to be opposed by Republicans who oppose increased federal involvement in elections. 

What We’re Watching 

Bipartisan agreement requires that Democrats, who have negotiated this agreement among themselves, accommodate real Republican priorities on voting reform, not just things Republicans may accept. These are the key ones we think will need to shift: 

  • Voter ID: FTVA establishes an expansive list of permissible IDs that states may require of voters and guarantees eligible voters who do not have their ID an opportunity to vote through a provisional ballot. The provisional ballot may be checked against their signature on record, or the voter may opt to later return with appropriate identification. Minimum ID standards across the states paired with expanded voting opportunities expansion creates space for compromise. 
  • Voter registration: The new bill requires states to implement “front end” automatic voter registration, which builds on the current Motor Voter Law by requiring individuals to opt out of registering rather than being asked to opt in when transacting with these agencies. BPC’s Task Force on Elections has endorsed a similar approach, which will yield more accurate voter rolls and improve security 
  • List maintenance: In addition to better voter registration, compromise and good election administration requires that administrators can keep the lists clean. FTVA instead creates stricter criteria for states to clean up their voter rolls, preventing some practices Democrats believe are meant to purge eligible voters, particularly minorities. Republicans see robust list maintenance as key to integrity. BPC believes list maintenance can achieve integrity and sufficiently clean up voter rolls, which is increasingly important with the expansion of vote by mail.  
  • Early voting: establishes a minimum of 15 days of early voting. BPC believes voters should have no less than 7 days ahead of an election to cast their ballots, and some Republicans have expressed openness to a similar period. 
  • Voting by mail: states must provide expansive vote by mail. Many of the policies are in line with BPC recommendations and voter preferences, such as allowing all voters to request and/or cast a mail ballot, allowing voters to track their ballots and fix discrepancies with their ballots after received by election officials, and providing for processing ballots before Election Day to ease the vote counting workload. However, provisions limiting identity verification criteria and requiring that absentee ballots be accepted for up to seven days after Election Day will likely draw Republican opposition because they view them as undermining integrity. 

Path Forward 

So far, Democrats have only been negotiating with themselves, and this bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, reflects a new consensus of their party. If a bipartisan agreement on voting legislation is to come, Democrats will have to engage with Republicans beyond lite versions of the issues that matter most to Republicans. Republicans also cannot treat this narrowing of Democrats’ priorities as a non-starter, as was the case with the For the People Act. Integrity and security do not have to be exclusive of voter access. Successful, bipartisan voting legislation will capture that balance. 

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