WASHINGTON – House Republicans on Wednesday made a pitch to overhaul how elections are run in the District of Columbia, employing a conservative playbook to tighten voting rules that has been used in Georgia, Texas and other GOP-controlled states.
Democrats characterized the effort as an abuse of the authority Congress has over the District and a first step in imposing voting restrictions and stripping voter protections nationwide if Republicans regain full political power in Washington during next year's elections.
Republicans used a joint committee hearing to criticize what they see as serious flaws and missteps in how the District has run elections. Although they provided no evidence of widespread fraud, they said election officials have mailed ballots to undeliverable addresses, failed to purge the rolls after voters die and neglected security measures to make their systems less susceptible to foreign interference.
“For years, DC’s elections have been mismanaged,” said Wisconsin Republican Rep. Bryan Steil, chairman of the House Administration Committee. “Our nation’s capital should be a beacon of democracy and a national model for excellence in election administration. This isn’t about who wins or loses elections, but rather ensuring voters have confidence in our elections."
The Republican bill seeks numerous changes that have been pushed by GOP lawmakers across the country. Among other changes, it would prohibit mail ballots from being automatically sent to all voters, require all mail ballots — except those from military and overseas voters — to be received by the time polls close, restrict the use of drop boxes and eliminate same-day voter registration.
Republicans also want to revive a failed effort from earlier this year that would prevent non-citizens from being able to vote. The District is one of roughly 15 municipalities across the U.S. where non-citizens are allowed to cast a ballot in local elections.
The election proposals follow a successful effort in Congress earlier this year to nullify an overhaul of the District's criminal code, which President Joe Biden signed in March. It also is the latest flashpoint between the predominantly Democratic city and congressional Republicans, who have promised to investigate everything from crime in the District to the way it's managed.
Under a 1970s-era law called the Home Rule Act, the District can pass its own laws — but they then must survive a 60-day review period during which Congress and the president can override them.
The rejection of the criminal code overhaul earlier this year embittered members of the D.C. City Council and was seen by many Democrats as part of a wider trend across the U.S. of predominantly white legislative bodies dictating how cities with large minority populations can operate.
On Wednesday, Democrats on the House Oversight and Administration committees criticized the effort to tighten the district's voting rules as part of a similar strategy. Several said the legislation, called the American Confidence in Elections Act, was an attempt to use the nation’s capital as a model for undermining voting rights and making access to the polls more difficult.
“If we are being honest, this hearing is not actually about Washington, D.C. This hearing, and the entire ACE Act, is about giving Republicans a platform to impose extreme restrictions on voters across this country,” said Democratic Rep. Joe Morelle, a member of the Administration committee.
In a statement, District of Columbia Attorney General Brian Schwalb said there is no evidence of widespread election irregularities or voter fraud in the District, where roughly 77 percent of registered voters are Democrats. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also questioned the need for the legislation, which she described as a way to strip voter protections in a city with a large Black population.
“If there is no valid reason, I think it stands to conclude that the only real reason that we see this push is political,” said Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Oversight committee. “To even have the idea of proposing the federal government strip voting rights in one of the Blackest cities of this country, that has a history of enslavement, a history of freed people seeking refuge here and then being punished with disenfranchisement, this cuts to the core of not just the present moment but American history.”
The hearing also deepened the tension between District leaders' desire to have full power over their own policies and the unusual authority Congress has over them. Democratic Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting delegate in Congress, said it was another reason to continue pushing for D.C. statehood.
Wendy Weiser, the vice president of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said: “D.C residents, like all citizens, desire and deserve self-political, self-determination, a say over what happens in their community, and a voice in the national government over what happens in the country as well.”
The Associated Press coverage of race and voting receives support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.