With the end of President Donald Trump’s partial government shutdown, Democrats were finally able to get started on their legislative agenda on Tuesday. That meant Democrats and Republicans could get back to disagreeing about basically everything — beginning with the litany of voting rights, campaign finance and ethics reforms in the Democrats’ first major bill of 2019.
The House Judiciary Committee held an initial hearing on H.R. 1, the For The People Act. Tuesday’s hearing focused largely on the bill’s voting rights provisions, which fall under the committee’s jurisdiction. These measures aim to expand automatic voter registration, early voting and felon re-enfranchisement. The bill also endorses a restoration of the Voting Rights Act pre-clearance provisions that were gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.
The hearing essentially encapsulated the modern fight to vote in America. Democratic lawmakers, pointing to numerous recent examples of long lines at the polls, voter purging and excessive gerrymandering, described a system that is shutting out too many Americans and needs reform. Republican lawmakers, aided by their witnesses, suggested claims of suppression were exaggerated and accused Democrats of wanting to change voting laws for their own political benefit.
“Georgia has three and a half weeks of early voting. We discussed the long lines that actually should be applauded. We have long lines because a lot of people wanted to vote,” said Rep Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.
Democrats invited Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Sarah Turberville, director of the Constitution Project at the Project on Government Oversight, and Adav Noti, director of trial litigation at the Campaign Legal Center, to testify on the need to expand voting rights and enact other provisions of the bill. Republicans invited Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation and J. Christian Adams of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, two individuals known for exaggerating the threat of in-person voter fraud.
The decision to invite Adams and von Spakovsky as their sole witnesses was an early indicator that Republicans were prepared to oppose this legislation with discredited, bad faith arguments. By the end of the hearing, GOP lawmakers had derided the bill as an unconstitutional power grab by a corrupt Democratic Party that steals elections and loves child rapists.
“Democrats have a long history of stealing elections,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said as he declared the bill was another attempt to do just that.
Buck’s historical examples ranged from New York party boss William “Boss” Tweed in the 1880s to Louisiana Gov. Huey Long of the 1930s to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of the 1960s. The only contemporary examples Buck presented were the false racial panic whipped up by Fox News and the conservative media ecosystem over the idea that the New Black Panther Party had helped President Barack Obama win the 2008 election and a unsubstantiated claim that Hillary Clinton stole the 2016 presidential nomination from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Neither Buck nor any other Republican at the hearing acknowledged an ongoing investigation in North Carolina into suspected election fraud conducted on behalf of a Republican.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) claimed that Democrats want ex-felons to regain the right to vote merely to build power for their party. But in Florida, a constitutional amendment easing the path for felons who’ve done their time to get their voting rights back garnered bipartisan support and passed overwhelmingly in November. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, recently called to lift her state’s lifetime ban on felons voting.
Collins argued that the bill could be called the “For The Violent Criminals Act” because it provided ex-felons with a right to vote. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) attacked the legislation for seeking to restore voting rights to all former felons. He read from a list of criminals who violated election laws or raped children and asked why they should be allowed to vote.
Von Spakovsky and Adams said H.R. 1 was a mishmash of unconstitutional provisions and “bad policy.” But it was their own histories of inflating concerns about voter fraud that came into focus during the hearing.
Both von Spakovsky and Adams were members of Trump’s failed voter fraud commission, which was created to justify the president’s false claims that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election. They have both also made repeated false and unsubstantiated claims about in-person voter fraud in order to support strict voter identification laws and other restrictions on voter registration and access.
Witnesses called to testify in support of the legislation ended up rebuking von Spakovsky and Adams for their claims.
Ifill said that von Spakovsky was providing misleading testimony in his defense of controversial voter ID laws when he pointed to each law’s “reasonable impediment” provision, which lets voters cast ballots without identification if they demonstrate some difficulty in obtaining it.
“This is the kind of testimony that I find the most disturbing because it is so misleading,” Ifill said. “To the extent that these voter ID laws now include this reasonable exception, it is because we had to litigate it over years. And the settlement of those cases came after years and years of elections in which voters were disenfranchised and unable to participate in the political process.”
Gupta pointed to a 2018 opinion from a federal judge, a George W. Bush appointee, who said she did not find von Spakovsky’s testimony in a case credible.
“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 that is the reason why we need H.R. 1,” Ifill added.