Donald Trump has made it clear that he wants election crackdowns to emerge as one of the defining legacies of his post-presidency, having failed to cling to power during Republicans’ anti-democratic blitz during and following the 2020 race. And various GOP lawmakers and some of the ex-president’s most prominent allies are lining up to assist him, as Democrats watch in horror and strategize their counter-offensives.
These national and state policy battles have rapidly developed into one of the most critical partisan fights of Joe Biden’s young presidency, with both parties viewing the outcomes as increasingly vital to their survival and future dominance at the ballot box.
In recent days, Trump has been calling up Senate allies, quizzing them about H.R. 1—congressional Democrats’ signature elections and voting rights bill—according to two people familiar with the matter. The so-called For the People Act, which passed the House on March 3, includes a national mandate for same-day voter registration, requirements that states establish automatic voter registration, and making Election Day a national holiday. It’s also chock-full of other measures, including campaign finance and redistricting reforms and a requirement that presidents release their income tax returns—all things that would be anathema to the ex-president.
“Do you think it has a chance?” the former president has privately inquired, asking for updates on how united Republicans are in efforts to “kill” the bill. He has been repeatedly assured by GOP senators and other associates that the legislation currently has very low odds of reaching President Biden’s desk. Democrats agree, but momentum is growing within the party to change the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for legislation to a simple majority, explicitly in the name of passing H.R. 1.
That may be a while off still, but that hasn’t stopped some top Trump allies from preemptively mapping out their plans to strike back if the bill ever becomes law.
“The [ACLJ] is reviewing H.R. 1 in light of possible legal challenges, if passed,” Jay Sekulow, a personal attorney to Trump who also heads the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “We’re also evaluating various states’ election laws to make sure that they’re in compliance with the U.S. Constitution. Over the last several days, we’ve been following H.R. 1 very closely. I have assigned a team of lawyers to look at election issues generally.”
While Republicans and Team Trump attempt to stymie a key Democratic initiative on Capitol Hill, around the country, Democrats and voter advocates are overwhelmed by an onslaught of bills that have emerged on the state level to roll back voting rights in the wake of the 2020 election. Over 250 bills restricting voting access have been filed in 43 states since the beginning of the year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
“This year certainly stands out in the sheer volume of these bills attacking voting rights and voting access,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel for voting rights at the Brennan Center, told The Daily Beast. “They are driven by longstanding lies about voter fraud and election integrity that have come from organizations like [the] Heritage [Foundation] and others, that have been advanced by the former president and his allies last year... This is a widespread national project to suppress voting.”
Republicans have been particularly active in states that Trump has fixated on since his loss. Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania’s GOP-led legislatures lead the way in proposing bills to limit voting rights. Arizona and Georgia’s Republican governors, Doug Ducey and Brian Kemp, were lambasted by Trump for seemingly not doing enough to overturn Biden’s wins in their states; both are under significant pressure from their parties to sign new restrictions into law.
At his new home base in Florida, former President Trump has told advisers that he wants to help rally support for these types of state GOP voting restrictions through trips and speaking engagements, a person with direct knowledge of the matter said. Trump has hyperbolically argued that if he and his party fail to destroy Democratic ambitions on this issue early on in the Biden era, “we might never win another election ever again,” as he’s phrased it to several people close to him. And last week, Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, now a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, posted an opinion piece for the think tank arguing that “Election reform is a national imperative, but under our Constitution, election reform must be undertaken at the state level.”
Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA), who won a runoff race in Georgia thanks to record turnout just two months ago, is now watching from Washington, D.C., as GOP leaders in his home state push legislation that will almost certainly make it harder for Black people and other minority groups to vote. “I think that the voter suppression legislation is flagrant, brazen, shameless, unconstitutional,” Ossoff told The Daily Beast last Wednesday. “Georgia's GOP should determine how to appeal to voters, not disenfranchise them because they lose.”
These state-level developments made Democrats’ consideration of voting rights legislation in Congress, like H.R. 1, feel even more urgent. That sense of alarm, however, is growing faster than the space for Democrats to counter it on Capitol Hill. They can pass all the bills they want in the House, but getting the 60 votes needed in the Senate is all but impossible in the evenly-split chamber—unless they jettison the filibuster.
It has not yet been clear that Democrats have nearly enough support within their caucus to get rid of the 60-vote threshold. But the prospect of voting rights bills dying a slow death on their watch may be changing that. In the wake of H.R. 1’s passage, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)—who did not embrace nuking the filibuster during her 2020 presidential run—said she supported repealing the rule explicitly so voting rights and democracy reform measures could pass. Her home-state colleague, Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), soon followed, and cited voting rights as a reason why.
House Democrats are clamoring for the Senate to pass expanded voter protections and many believe the state-level bills will simply go unchecked if senators don’t overcome their reservations around getting rid of the filibuster.
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), a member of the House Judiciary Committee with some jurisdiction over voting laws, represents a state she quipped has been “basically surfing” nationwide trends on voter suppression.
“H.R. 1 is so important,” Scanlon told The Daily Beast. “That may be what sinks the filibuster, because if all this stuff goes through in the individual states and there’s no way to counter it other than a federal law, that may be enough to get people on board.”
When told that Trump remained active in pushing forward laws to restrict voting, Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) let out a laugh. “No surprise,” he said in an interview.
“You cannot engage these people who are bad faith actors and expect a different result from the status quo,” said Jones, also a member of the Judiciary panel. He cited Klobuchar’s support of ending the filibuster as a clear sign of momentum for H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill named for the late lawmaker and civil rights legend that aims to restore and strengthen voter protection for historically disenfranchised groups. “This is all foundational stuff,” he added. “Nothing else comes close to being this important.”
Many liberals, particularly in the House, have a hard time watching H.R. 1 stall while Team Trump and the GOP go full steam ahead on their measures to curtail voting access—measures explicitly predicated on the conspiracy of widespread election fraud.
“Donald Trump and his Republican enablers, including Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick in Texas, are already employing the big lie that this past election was rigged and stolen in order to disenfranchise millions of citizens, particularly young, Black, and Latino voters,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) to The Daily Beast.
“And let’s be clear-eyed with stakes,” added Castro. “If President Biden and Congress fail to safeguard our elections now, I fear for the future of our democracy.”
In the face of pressure from the GOP and from within, Biden took his first action as president acknowledging the issue, rolling out an executive order on Sunday directing federal agencies to explore ways to expand voter access.
Jones, for one, believes Democrats should step up their efforts to fight back, both on and off Capitol Hill. He said he is not letting any media appearance or interview slide without mentioning the need to pass bills like H.R. 1 and says House Democrats should “absolutely” keep up the pressure on the Senate by continuing to pass more voting bills, like the VRAA.
“I think we can do more,” said Jones. “This should not be controversial stuff. It’s only controversial because Republicans cannot win on the merits of their policy ideas. They instead must resort to disenfranchising large swaths of American electorate.”