U.S. House Democrats seek widespread changes in elections

House Democrats unveiled sweeping legislation Friday that would change the way states administer federal elections, an attempt to prevent officials from conducting the kind of mass voter registration cancellations that became an issue before last year’s midterms in Georgia.

The measure, given the symbolically important bill number House Resolution 1, seeks to make it easier for people to vote and limit the reach of special interests in elections. It is likely to face a quick death in the Senate, where Republican leaders are wary of changing campaign finance laws and taking the power to administer elections away from states.

But a narrow avenue for cooperation did appear to open Friday when a key House Republican separately raised the prospect of hearings in Georgia and three other states about reported voting irregularities during last year’s elections.

Democrats indicated they were setting their sights far more broadly.

During a crowded press conference steps from the House floor, dozens of Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Atlanta U.S. Rep. John Lewis unveiled their legislative package, which would also require presidents to release their tax returns, bar lawmakers from serving on corporate boards and outlaw partisan gerrymandering by state legislatures.

“Restoring the peoples’ faith in government is really our agenda,” said Pelosi, a Democrat from California.

Proposed changes

The legislation would require automatic voter registration for federal elections, expand early voting and set aside money for states to bolster their election infrastructure, including transitioning to paper ballots — a major priority of the Georgia Legislature this year.

It would set conditions for states seeking to remove voters from the rolls. The bill clarifies that a "failure to vote is not grounds for removing registered voters from the rolls," an indirect reference to Georgia's practice of canceling registrations of voters who don't participate in elections for several years. About 1.4 million people have been removed from Georgia's voting rolls since 2012.

“I truly believe deep in my heart, in my soul, the way votes were not counted and purged in Georgia and Florida and other states changed the outcome of the last election,” said Lewis, a 17-term House member who was a leader of the civil rights movement. “That must never happen again in our country.”

Missing from the 571-page package is language shoring up the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which has been a major priority for Democrats following a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gutted portions of the law requiring Georgia and other states to clear any proposed changes to voting laws with the Justice Department.

Without federal oversight, county election officials have closed 214 precincts across Georgia since 2012, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in August.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., one of the chief architects of the measure, said the party first wanted to build a “robust record” of hearings and testimony so that future voting rights bills would have a better chance of withstanding any court challenges.

“It’ll be given special handling, have its own set of hearings, build the record carefully so it passes that standard that the Supreme Court has articulated,” Sarbanes told reporters. “That was a pretty easy choice to make.”

Pelosi promised the Voting Rights Act updates would come “in short order” in separate legislation.

The measure had at least one notable admirer in Georgia.

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams called it a “critical first step in addressing the flaws in our nation’s voting laws and election integrity.”

After narrowly losing election to the state's top office to Republican Brian Kemp last year, Abrams founded the voting rights group Fair Fight Action, which filed a lawsuit alleging systematic mismanagement across Georgia's elections system.

Partisan fight likely

The legislation was rolled out without any GOP support, a sign that it likely won’t advance far out of the House. Many Republicans have criticized the public cost of having taxpayers foot the bill for political campaigns, which the initiative would incentivize by matching some small donations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has advocated for loosening campaign finance restrictions, previously cast doubt on the bill’s constitutionality.

The measure, he said at an event in December, was “probably going to be a blatantly unconstitutional effort to have the government basically micromanage the way we handle elections,” according to The New York Times.

There are potentially some narrower areas for cooperation. One emerged Friday when U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on a House subcommittee with jurisdiction over federal elections, wrote a letter to the panel's chairwoman noting examples of voting irregularities in the "processes and procedures" of local county election officials in several states related to provisional ballots, signature verification requirements and mail-in ballots.

Without giving any details, Davis appeared to hint that the committee found something amiss in Georgia, California, Illinois and Utah after sending election monitors there. He requested the panel hold field hearings in those states.

“These reported irregularities raise questions about the appropriate safeguards states have in place with respect to these non-traditional voting methods,” Davis wrote to Ohio Democrat Marcia Fudge. “The Committee’s oversight responsibilities over federal elections dictate that we pursue these irregularities, potentially fraudulent activities, reported by House-sanctioned observers.”

Georgia’s election for governor in November was plagued by hours-long lines at some precincts, malfunctioning voting machines and voters who said their registrations hadn’t been processed.

County election officials reported rejecting nearly 7,000 absentee ballots, often because election officials decided voters' signatures didn't match those on file, and for relatively minor transgressions such as filling out the outside of the ballot envelopes incorrectly.

Staff writer Mark Niesse and Cox Media Group’s Jamie Dupree contributed to this article.