Opinion: Election reform bills face a long, difficult road in Congress

When the House and Senate return in September from the long summer recess, the legislative agenda will likely focus on the federal spending bills necessary to keep the government operating, leaving little time for other matters.

That means limited attention will be paid to the approximately 100 bills that have been proposed to improve the political system in the United States. And 2024 will likely offer few opportunities for meaningful action because both major political parties will focus on winning elections rather than passing meaningful legislation.

So what will happen to the many bills that would change how elections are administered, tighten the rules that govern lobbyists, alter campaign finance laws or encourage partisans to build bridges? The vast majority will go nowhere — but advocates for democracy reform believe there is still an opportunity to achieve legislation success before Congress adjourns in December 2024.

As of Aug. 4, at least 94 bills dealing with how officials are elected, the relationship between branches of government, and lobbyist regulations have been introduced in both the House and the Senate. Only four have passed either chamber, including one resolution in the House and another in the Senate. Two other bills, dealing with lobbying, have been approved by the Senate.

While none of those measures have become law, representatives of bipartisan advocacy groups are holding out hope for further action, even though Democrats and Republicans have vastly different views on election administration.

"Whether it's the Freedom to Vote Act or the American Confidence in Elections Act, the reality is we are in divided government, and many of the proposals before Congress will be very difficult to pass in the [current Congress]," said Elise Wirkus, legislative director for Issue One. "There is, however, an opportunity in the appropriations process to get needed funds to election offices to help election officials administer safe and secure elections in 2024."

Alexandra Chandler, who leads elections and voting rights efforts at the national level for Protect Democracy, agreed.

"There is a path on election funding, I truly believe," she said, citing a recent request from Michigan election officials who asked Congress to provide $400 million for election management. President Biden suggested in March that Congress allocate $15 billion over 10 years for election assistance nationwide.

"Election officials across the country are getting ready for next year's general election, and Congress has an opportunity right now to ensure that these hardworking officials have the resources they need to administer free, fair, and safe elections," Wirkus said. "That includes critical funding to help state and local election officials meet basic modernization, staffing, and security needs, which is why we have been advocating for the appropriation of at least $400 million in election funding this year to secure our country's critical election infrastructure."

The two election reform bills Wirkus mentioned represent the parties' diverging views. The Freedom to Vote Act is the Democrats' sweeping attempt to create national standards for voter registration, redistricting, voting by mail and more. Despite having the support of nearly every Democrat in Congress, the bill will not be able to pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Conversely, the American Confidence in Elections Act is House Republicans' effort to create new requirements for voter identification, crack down the practice of "ballot harvesting" (in which a person may submit ballots on behalf of others) and more. The bill has been approved by the House Administration Committee and could get a vote in the full chamber.

Another House panel, the Oversight and Accountability Committee, approved a narrower bill but one that shares a key element: preventing noncitizens from voting in D.C. elections. Neither is likely to make it through the Democratic-led Senate.

Chapman remains confident that there is enough time for Congress to act.

"I think that it's important to note that we do have recent evidence that Congress can get things done on elections. Look at the Electoral Count Reform Act," she said. "Work started in early 2021. ... It took nearly two years but we got ECRA passage in December 2022. This shows us that Congress does have the ability to pass substantive, complex election bills and bring together people who are very far apart on other issues."

Maybe lobbying reform will be the next issue to move forward.

On June 22, the Senate passed the Lobbying Disclosure Improvement Act and the Disclosing Foreign Influence in Lobbying Act, both bipartisan measures aimed at updating the disclosure requirement for foreign agents who register to lobby in the United States. The Senate passed the bills — whose primary backers include Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. — during the previous Congress but the House did not act on them.

House versions have been introduced, but await committee approval.

Other bills have seemingly significant support among lawmakers, but that may not be enough to move them forward.

For example, nearly every Democrat in the House — 194 to be exact — has cosponsored the Washington, D.C. Admissions Act, which would make D.C. the 51st state. But with no support among the Republican majority for a bill that would give Democrats more seats in Congress, that measure isn't going anywhere. The Senate version has 45 Democratic supporters. (This article counts independents with the party with which they generally align.)

Every member of the 51-person Democratic majority in the Senate has signed on to the DISCLOSE Act, which expands prohibitions on foreign contributions to federal campaigns and increases disclosure requirements for political advertising. But in a chamber where 60 votes has become the usual threshold for passage, the bill seems stuck. The House version has 118 Democratic cosponsors, but no Republican has signed on in either chamber.

Just 18 of the 94 bills identified for this article have public support from at least one lawmaker of each party, as measured by sponsorships and cosponsorships. Other than the two Senate lobbying disclosing bills and a Senate resolution marking Aug. 23, 2023, as "National Poll Worker Recruitment Day," none of the bipartisan bills have advanced out of the committee stage.

Advocates for improving cross-partisan dialogue and cooperation are hopeful the Building Civic Bridges Act can move forward this fall. Backed by an equal number of Democratic and Republican supporters (12 of each), the bill would create a national office that would guide and fund bridge-building programs across the country.

"These programs have a singular focus: fostering meaningful connections across lines of difference, be it political affiliation, race, ethnicity, or religion," Kristina Becvar, chief operating officer of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund (which operates The Fulcrum), and Kara Revel Jarzynski, executive director of Resolutionaries," wrote in early August. "By encouraging empathy, understanding, and dialogue, the BCBA aims to bridge divides and build a stronger, more cohesive society."

That measure, a paired Senate bill, failed to advance in 2022 but it is expected to be reintroduced in September by Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., who has had some success in working across the aisle: He chaired the now defunct Committee on the Modernization of the House, which made more than 200 proposals for improving the House even though the panel was equally divided along party lines — usually a recipe for stalemate.

Bridge-building efforts may be necessary in Congress as well, if Democrats and Republicans are going to tackle critical issues, such as protecting elections from foreign interference or the potential harm brought on by the rise of artificial intelligence. Both Wirkus and Chapman cited fears that unregulated AI could be used to create misleading or false election information and advertising.

"These are increasingly complex issues that require a federal response," Wirkus said. "Republicans and Democrats in Congress must work together this year to protect and strengthen our elections."

David Meyers, president of DBM Content Solutions, is the former executive editor of The Fulcrum. Before that, he spent more than two decades at CQ Roll Call, a leading publisher of political news and information.