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Q&A With Rodney Davis On What Democrats' Election Bill Would (And Wouldn't) Do

House Television via AP, File
In this April 23, 2020, file image from video, Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Republicans and Democrats are at odds over a sweeping election bill that seeks to reform voting, campaign finance, and ethics laws.

The so-called For the People Act cleared the U.S. House last month with just one Democrat siding with unanimous GOP opposition.

Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis said while Democrats claim the bill prevents voter suppression, that doesn't tell the whole story.

Campaign finance

Davis called the measure a Democratic "power grab" that reaches far beyond voting rights.

“This is not a 'For the People Act,' as it's titled. This is not a voting rights bill. This is a 'For the Politicians Act,'" Davis said. "This is the furthest thing from a voting rights bill that we can get to because, really, what this bill does that doesn't get a lot of reports about it is that it gives every single member of Congress the ability to get $7.2 million put into their own campaign accounts.”

H.R. 1 does empower public financing of congressional campaigns by creating a small donation matching program through a Freedom from Influence Fund. A similar program already exists for presidential candidates.

The fund would provide a 6-to-1 match: for every $1 a private donor contributes, an additional $6 would come from the fund. Donations are capped at $200 for donors. Davis said under the complex formula, House lawmakers could bring in millions.

That fund would accumulate money primarily from surcharges on federal fines, penalties and settlements from corporations, corporate officers, or—in rare cases—individual tax code violators who are in the top income bracket. The legislation specifies taxpayer dollars cannot be used to support the fund.

Supporters of the measure say it will diminish the power of PACs and corporate wealth, while helping to bolster diversity in who runs for office.

Ballot collecting

That's just one part of the 800-page legislation. Davis said he believes the parts aimed at making voting more accessible also are problematic.

“Remember, the voting rights portion of this bill is to expand voting procedures that have been rife with fraud—like ballot harvesting, a process that has already been found fraudulent in North Carolina's 9th District," Davis said. "We didn't sit a duly-elected member of Congress there because one of his operatives used the ballot harvesting process. That was illegal in North Carolina. However, if that individual who committed fraud in North Carolina did that fraudulent activity in California, where ballot harvesting is legal, nothing would have happened.”

Ballot harvesting—or ballot collecting—is when a third party collects and delivers ballots on behalf of voters.

Davis is referring to a 2018 North Carolina case where a Republican operative was indicted for mishandling absentee ballots in an effort to sway the election. The operative was charged with paying workers to collect ballots from voters, fraudulently sign them and then deliver them to election offices.

North Carolina law only allows close family members to return ballots on a voter's behalf. Fraudulent signatures are illegal in every state.

In about half of states, third parties like volunteers or campaign workers can go directly to the homes of voters, collect completed ballots, and drop them off at polling places. In some states, ballot harvesters can legally be paid to do that work—but not in California.

Illinois allows third-party ballot collection, but requires authorization—usually by voter signature.

Supporters of this process argue it's critical for voters who may have trouble accessing in-person voting or who live in areas where mail service is scarce. That includes those living in rural communities, tribal lands, or who lack access to transportation.

This bill would allow voters to designate any person to return a voted and sealed absentee ballot, as long as that person is not being compensated. There’s no limit to how many ballots the third party could return.

Mail-in voting

There's little documentation of widespread election fraud by either left or right interests. But Davis said Republicans are still concerned about security issues—particularly with expanded mail-in voting.

“There are states like New York, California, Nevada and others...they mail live ballots to every registered voter. Here's the problem with that: We've identified this with the former secretary of state—now senator—from California, Alex Padilla, at a hearing last fall...Secretary Padilla would not commit to removing identified deceased registered voters off of the voter rolls in California and thus abide by the federal law in the Help America Vote Act by making sure that voter rolls are up to date," Davis said. "You're talking a few 100,000 individuals that have been identified, because they all got live ballots sent to their last address."

The bill does not mandate voting by mail. It require states to send vote-by-mail applications—not live ballots—to all voters. It also aims to make voting by mail easier by not allowing states to require voter ID or notarization to vote by mail.

California and other states did send live ballots to all registered voters in November. An elections watchdog group in California claims that could have sent 458,000 ballots to voters who are dead or who moved. That was the number of registered voters who had not voted or updated their registrations since at least 2008.

Election officials dispute that idea. They said authorities use transmission of death notices, state and national change-of-address information, and incarceration records to regularly update voter lists. However, they admit erroneous ballots will be mailed, given the time it takes to receive these official notices.

Strain on election officials

Still, Davis has concerns about the feasibility of expanding vote-by-mail.

“We have to be able to hear from election administrators, which is why I had the secretary of state from Washington state as our witness," Davis said. "They vote by mail 100%. But she's the first one to admit it takes longer than five years to implement a system like they have in Washington state. It can't be done overnight. And it can't be done at the expense of making sure that chain of custody of every ballot is paramount.”

State and local election officials are worried about their ability to meet the deadlines and requirements as laid out in the legislation. Many of those boxes are supposed to be ticked as early as next year.

Election administrators also worry some measures would significantly increase the price to run an election, with no guaranteed long-term funding.

Davis said these are among the reasons voting reforms are better left at the state and local levels.

“We have to celebrate what we're doing right," Davis said. "That's really what the Democrats in Washington don't want to do. They don't want to acknowledge that we've had record turnout. That matters. That shows that states and localities are are actually implementing provisions that are encouraging people to vote, otherwise, we would have seen less people able to vote. And that's a good thing, but let's leave it up to our states.”

Leaving it up to states is exactly what Democrats fear.

There are more than 350 election laws under consideration in 47 states that Democrats and some scholars call restrictive. Researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law said that's a 43% increase in the past month.

Those bills would do things like eliminate or restrict early voting, tighten or impose voter ID requirements, prevent same-day voter registration, and allow for bigger "voter purges."

This For the People Act could hypothetically put a stop to all of that, but success looks unlikely.

The bill would need to win over a minimum 10 Republicans in the Senate to break a filibuster. That is unless lawmakers scrap the 60-vote threshold, as progressive Democrats are calling for.

Until or unless that happens, both parties can point to the issue to mobilize their bases.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.