WASHINGTON – The debate over a massive federal voting rights act erupted in tense exchanges Wednesday as Sen. Amy Klobuchar faced withering GOP criticism that the changes would cause chaos and undermine states' rights.
The Minnesota Democrat, a lead sponsor of the For the People Act, said at a hearing of the Rules Committee she chairs that the measure is essential as GOP legislators in states across the country have drafted more than 250 measures to restrict voting access. She pointed to the chaos of hourslong waits at polling places, new limitations on early voting and new restrictions on who can cast mail-in ballots.
"The bill simply tries to make it easier to vote," Klobuchar said. "The For the People Act is the best chance to stop the rollback of voting rights."
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, was having none of it. He insisted, repeatedly, that many of the proposals to restrict voting access will not pass. He called allegations of voter suppression by Klobuchar and other Democrats "a false narrative."
During testimony, Blunt used time limits to cut off Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, which is tracking newly proposed voting restrictions.
Klobuchar and Blunt, who are good friends, sparred verbally before Klobuchar gave Waldman an extra 30 seconds to make a point.
It was hardly the most contentious moment. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas charged that Democrats intended the law to register "millions of illegal aliens" and "criminals" because of its automatic and same-day voter registration requirements.
The level of emotion in the hearing demonstrated the stakes for the electoral process in the wake of former President Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claims that he lost the 2020 election because of widespread voter fraud that he blamed on mail-in voting.
In addition to codifying broad mail-in voting provisions, the election bill would increase public reporting requirements that would reveal identities of big political contributors. It also attempts to end partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts.
The House passed the voting rights bill over unanimous Republican opposition earlier this month. The Senate bill is unlikely to pass unless Democrats can attract enough support to do away with the chamber's filibuster rule requiring a 60-vote majority to end debate.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell each spoke passionately. Schumer said Republicans should be ashamed of continuing to "seize" on Trump's "big lie" about voter fraud to impose voting restrictions not seen since the time of legal racial segregation.
McConnell countered that only two of the proposed restrictions have passed and that states were not "engaging in trying to suppress voters." He called the federal election bill "an implementation nightmare."
Voter ID requirements, which the bill eliminates, and backup paper ballots, which the law requires to thwart cyber fraud, became points of contention. So did access to absentee ballots.
Democrats cited several proposed state laws to bolster their case that the federal election package is needed. Klobuchar pointed to an Arizona proposal that would require applications for absentee ballots to be notarized, a rule that could affect rural and poor voters.
Another controversial proposal is a Georgia attempt to limit Sunday voting. Black churches used Sunday voting to increase turnout in the 2020 election in which Democratic President Joe Biden carried Georgia. A runoff election in January elected two Democrats to the Senate from Georgia.
Schumer described the Georgia proposal as racist voter suppression.
Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi offered a religious explanation for the prohibition, quoting from the Bible: "Remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy."
The hearing in some ways mirrored the fight over the 1965 Voting Rights Act that established important voting standards for minority groups facing discrimination. Supporters then argued for protections that guaranteed easier access for legal voters to exercise their franchise. Opponents charged the usurpation of states' rights with a one-size system that did not fit all and that they said would increase expenses and distrust.
Klobuchar wrapped up the hearing by praising Minnesota election laws that led to high voter turnout and the election of Republican, Democratic and Independent office holders.
"You lose that," she said, "if you make it harder and harder to vote."
Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432