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Elections bill criticized by officials from state

It would ‘federalize’ vote, they warn by Neal Earley | March 31, 2021 at 4:15 a.m.
Supporters of a candidate cavort across the street from a polling place in Little Rock's Hillcrest neighborhood Tuesday afternoon, March 3, 2020. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)

Five of Arkansas' top elected officials gathered Tuesday to warn of a proposed bill that they said has little chance of passing in the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman, U.S. Rep. French Hill, state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston held a news conference in Little Rock to criticize the federal legislation, which they said would "jeopardize" election integrity.

The bill in question, House Resolution 1, proposes a set of election changes across the United States. If passed, the bill, proffered by congressional Democrats, would diminish state voter ID laws, create a national voter registration system, regulate dark money in political advertisements, institute a nonpartisan commission to end gerrymandering, and fund elections with taxpayer dollars.

Those changes are a nonstarter for the Arkansas Republicans who said Tuesday that the bill would "federalize" state-run elections. The legislation, also dubbed "For the People Act of 2021," passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 3 in a mostly party-line vote.

While it quickly sailed through the House, it has little chance of making it through a divided Senate, Cotton said Tuesday.

"As long as the Democrats, you know, don't have 50 votes for this bill, as long as they don't have 50 votes to end more than two centuries of Senate rules and traditions, then this legislation is not going to move forward," Cotton said.

For the election package to pass in the Senate, it would likely need 60 votes, a remote possibility in a chamber evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

The Senate could vote to end the filibuster, the parliamentary rule that requires many bills to have 60 votes to pass, but that is also unlikely with several Democratic members, such as Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., pledging support to keep the rule.

"So unless the Democrats go back on their commitments, and they end the Senate rules and traditions that require consensus and bipartisanship to get 60 votes, I don't think this bill can pass," Cotton said.

Democrats have singled out the bill as a key priority for their agenda and are "under tremendous pressure" to pass it, Boozman said.

"This might be the one where they try and do away with the filibuster," the Rogers Republican said.

Proponents of the bill argue that the changes would expand access to voting by making it easier for people to register. The bill would also require more disclosure of spending by political actors and would try to end partisan redistricting.

"Whether you're a Republican, Democrat or an independent, you just want to be able to cast your vote in America and have that be easy and convenient and straightforward," said U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., the lead sponsor of the bill, at a March 3 news conference.

One main hang-up for Republicans is how the legislation would allow some voters to get around voter ID laws. As in many states, voters in Arkansas are required to show government-issued photo ID to cast their ballots.

Democrats have criticized voter ID laws, saying they are designed to prevent minority and poor voters -- who are less likely to have a photo ID -- from voting. The legislation would allow those without ID to present sworn, written statements that they are eligible to vote.

But Arkansas' secretary of state said voter ID laws are about preventing the threat of voter fraud and that more states should have election laws like Arkansas'.

"Despite the global pandemic, we had one of the most successful elections in state history," Thurston said.

Despite Thurston touting the success of Arkansas' November election, Rutledge said many Arkansans have doubts about election integrity.

In the weeks after the election, Rutledge's office "literally received thousands of phone calls," emails and social media messages from Arkansans concerned about election integrity, she said.

When asked about whether those calls cast doubt on Arkansas' election laws, Rutledge clarified that many of the calls were about what was happening in "other states."

This is not the first time Democrats have pushed a major election-overhaul bill. At the beginning of the previous Congress in 2019, Sarbanes sponsored a similar bill, also known as H.R. 1 and dubbed "For the People Act."

While the 2019 version of the bill passed in the House, it died in the Republican-controlled Senate. Hill noted that he proudly voted against both bills.

Hill said he supported laws to strengthen election security and integrity, but he suggested the House should "start over" with Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., taking the lead, saying Davis has previously introduced bills on election integrity and security that would gain GOP support.

"Out-of-touch Democrats are taking a partisan, we-know-better-than-you approach -- one size fits all -- to congressional elections, centralizing that authority in Washington, D.C.," Hill said.

Cotton said the best Republican response to the legislation would be to leave elections to the states.

"But the fundamental thrust of the bill is to federalize our elections, and if your question is: 'What is the Republican solution to federalize our elections?' my answer is we don't have one," Cotton said. "Because we shouldn't federalize our elections."

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