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Things to know about Democrats' election reform bill


House Democrats approved on Friday a sweeping elections reform measure that would reshape campaign finance rules, impose new voter registration requirements and compel presidential candidates to release their personal tax returns.

The legislation, H.R. 1, is in many ways a direct response to what Democrats have alleged is potential impropriety on the part of President Trump and his 2016 White House campaign.

But the bill, which spans nearly 700 pages, also has the potential to reshape voting, campaigning and government ethics.

Here are five things to know about bill.

It overhauls election rules, expands voter access

At the core of H.R. 1 is a set of far-reaching election reforms that have the potential to expand voter access, reshape how campaigns are financed and overhaul how congressional districts are drawn.

One key provision would establish an automatic voter registration system. Another would prohibit states from denying convicted felons who have served out their sentences the right to vote. A different provision would make Election Day a federal holiday in a bid to boost voter turnout.

In addition to expanding ballot access nationwide, the bill looks to curtail partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of congressional districts to benefit one political party over another, by ordering states to create independent redistricting commissions.

The legislation would also require 501(c)(4) nonprofit entities engaged in political activity — dubbed “dark money” groups — to disclose their large-dollar donors, a move lauded by political transparency advocates but criticized by other groups, who warn that the requirement could chill free speech.

H.R. 1 represents the centerpiece of Democrats' efforts to make good on a campaign pledge to combat corruption in Washington and take on what they have alleged is a long-running effort by Republicans to suppress voter turnout and muddy the waters of campaign finance.

The measure is virtually dead on arrival in the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has railed against the measure as a “power grab” by Democrats, arguing that it would tweak election laws and procedures in such a way that would benefit the party’s candidates.

“They’re trying to clothe this power grab with cliches about ‘restoring democracy’ and doing it ‘For the People,’ but their proposal is simply a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party. It should be called the Democrat Politician Protection Act,” McConnell wrote in an op-ed published by The Washington Post in January.

He’s already vowed not to allow H.R. 1 to come to a vote in the Senate. Even if it did, the measure would likely face an insurmountable challenge before the chamber’s Republican majority.

Waiting at the end of the tunnel for H.R. 1: a presidential veto. The White House has already warned that President Trump will reject the legislation in the event that it reaches his desk.

It contains a few controversial provisions

While most of the bill’s provisions embody broad Democratic ambitions of elections and ethics reform, it also contains a few controversial items.

One provision would allow candidates for public office to treat certain personal expenses — child care or health care costs, for example — as campaign expenditures. The point of the provision, according to the bill, is to lower economic barriers to running for office.

But some other controversial proposals didn’t make it into the final package.

An amendment offered by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) that would have allowed 16-year-olds to vote in federal elections as early as 2020 was overwhelmingly rejected. Only 126 members voted in favor of that proposal.

Another provision that would allow states to start registering minors to vote at the age of 16 did make it into the final legislation. That provision has been criticized by some Republicans, who say that it increases the risk of potential voter fraud.

It takes implicit aim at Trump

In many ways, H.R. 1 reads as a tacit rebuke of Trump.

One provision, for example, would require presidential and vice presidential candidates to release 10 years of personal tax returns. Presidential hopefuls have for decades released past tax returns as a show of transparency. But that precedent ended in 2016 with the real estate mogul, who has repeatedly refused to make such documents public.

The legislation would also bar the government from spending federal funds on businesses owned by the president or members of his Cabinet.

A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released last month found that four of Trump’s trips to his exclusive Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2017 racked up a bill of $13.6 million — about $3.4 million apiece.

Another provision takes aim at presidential inaugural committees, placing a $50,000 limit on individual contributions to such groups and requiring that they disclose donors that give more than $1,000.

Trump’s inaugural committee is the target of document requests by multiple law enforcement officials looking into how the president’s committee raised a record-setting $107 million for swearing-in festivities.

It’s going to be a hot issue in 2020

With both parties ramping up for what’s expected to be a long and bitter election battle in 2020, the fight over H.R. 1 is almost certain to provide political fodder for Democrats eager to oust Trump and expand their House majority.

In a way, the measure embodies the party’s argument that Trump and his administration have repeatedly shirked ethical standards and precedents. Democrats are likely to seize on any effort by the president or Republican lawmakers to block the legislation to bolster their argument that Trump has something to hide.

At the same time, the GOP are likely to use H.R. 1 to argue that Democrats are seeking to politicize the pillars of American democracy, impose unnecessary burdens on a Republican president and rig election and ethics rules to benefit their candidates.

McConnell is likely to come under Democratic attack for his opposition to the bill as he heads into his 2020 reelection bid. And the matter is sure to spill over into the presidential race, as well.

In a lengthy statement this week, the White House laid out its argument against H.R. 1, warning that if the bill reached the president’s desk, a veto would be all but certain.

“H.R. 1 proposes an overreach of Federal power that would violate constitutional principles of separation of powers, federalism, and freedom of speech,” the statement reads, before concluding: “If H.R. 1 were presented to the President, his advisors would recommend he veto the bill.”