WASHINGTON, Sept 14 (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a new version of an election reform bill that is a top priority of President Joe Biden, as a wave of Republican state legislatures impose restrictions on voting.
Senator Amy Klobuchar and seven fellow Democrats, including moderates such as Senator Joe Manchin, introduced the bill, which would set national standards for states to follow as they administer elections.
The Democratic senators said their bill, dubbed the Freedom to Vote Act, would ensure that all qualified voters can request mail-in ballots and have at least 15 days of early voting. The legislation also would allow people to register to vote as late as Election Day, which would become a public holiday.
The bill also would aim to lift a veil of secrecy over some campaign contributions.
“Following the 2020 elections in which more Americans voted than ever before, we have seen unprecedented attacks on our democracy in states across the country,” the senators said in a statement.
Michael Waldman, president of the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, said the new legislation “gives powerful new momentum to the fight to protect democracy.”
The pared-down bill abandons the previous version’s requirement for commissions to oversee the once-in-a-decade drawing of congressional districts with the goal of preventing oddly shaped, or gerrymandered, boundaries that favor one political party over another.
Instead, state governments would have the freedom to develop redistricting but would have to abide by specific criteria.
Also dropped were some controversial ethics provisions such as requiring presidents to release their income tax returns — something that former President Donald Trump has refused to do.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said he would schedule a vote on the wide-ranging bill soon and opened the door to Republican input in the meantime.
Noting that Democrats won the White House and control of the Senate in the last elections, Schumer said Republicans in several state legislatures were now “trying to stop the people who didn’t vote for them from voting.”
But with Republicans in Congress accusing Democrats of a “power grab” that would rob states of their ability to fashion voting rules, the legislation faces a tough battle in the Senate, which is divided 50-50 between the two parties.
“There is no reason for the federal government to take over how we conduct elections,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters. “It is a solution in search of a problem, and we will not be supporting that.”
In June, all 50 Senate Republicans banded together to block a more ambitious bill, leaving Democrats 10 votes short of the minimum needed for it to advance. Under the Senate’s filibuster rule, at least 60 votes in the 100-member chamber are needed for most legislation to advance.
Democrats accused Republican-controlled states of imposing new voting rules to suppress Election Day turnout, especially among Black, Hispanic and young voters, many of whom lean Democratic.
Those Republican efforts expanded significantly after last November’s U.S. presidential election in which a defeated Trump falsely claimed he was the victim of widespread voter fraud – an allegation rejected multiple times by courts and by his own Justice Department.
In midterm elections set for Nov. 8, 2022, voters will decide whether control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives should remain in Democratic hands or be turned over to Republicans.
Democrats hold the narrowest of majorities in Congress.
Last week, Texas joined the list of states enacting new election restrictions, which Biden called an “all-out assault” on American democracy.
The state’s new rules would make it harder for Texans to cast mail-in ballots and would add identification requirements for such voting.
Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the law would make it “harder for people to cheat at the ballot box.”
If Senate Republicans again refuse to provide the support needed for the bill to clear the 60-vote threshold, some Democrats are expected to urge Schumer to take steps to ease that requirement.
“We have an epic political clash going on right now,” the Brennan Center’s Waldman said, referring to Republican state legislatures pushing to curb voting. “On the other hand, Congress has the power to override that; to stop it cold.”
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)