In the days leading up to the Senate vote on the House-passed elections bill, Republicans offered several misleading talking points about the Democratic bill, and made other statements that required more context.
- Republicans said the bill would direct taxpayer money to publicly finance federal campaigns. The matching campaign money would come from a new surcharge added to certain criminal fines and civil settlements involving corporate defendants and their executive officers.
- Republicans said the bill creates a “speech czar” who would limit the free speech of campaigns. The bill proposes to break the current bipartisan split on the Federal Elections Commission board, and allow the president to appoint a tie-breaking chairman. But one election expert said that’s more akin to a “campaign finance czar” than a “speech czar.”
- Republicans said it would “ban” or “repeal” state voter ID laws. The proposed law would allow states to keep voter ID laws, but it would allow voters without ID in states that require voter identification to provide a sworn written statement attesting to their identity and eligibility.
- House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy warned the bill’s call for automatic voter registration through state motor vehicle agencies is the kind of thing that led to “multiple cases of fraud” in California. A few Californians were erroneously registered “due to DMV errors” and voted in the 2018 elections, but none were charged with voter fraud.
H.R. 1, the For the People Act, passed the House on March 3 on an almost entirely partisan basis. (The lone Democrat to vote against the bill was Rep. Bennie Thompson.) It seeks to expand access to voting and make major changes to campaign finance and redistricting laws.
The bill came up for a test vote in the Senate on June 22 but failed on a straight partisan 50-50 vote, blocking the ability to even start debate on the legislation.
Before the vote, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the proposal would “rewrite the ground rules of American politics” and install a “transparently partisan plan to tilt every election in America permanently in their favor.” He argued it would be “a recipe for undermining confidence in our elections.”
After the vote, President Joe Biden issued a statement saying “a Democratic stand to protect our democracy met a solid Republican wall of opposition.” But Biden vowed the legislation is not dead.
“This fight is far from over—far from over,” Biden said. “I’ve been engaged in this work my whole career, and we are going to be ramping up our efforts to overcome again—for the people, for our very democracy.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said shortly after the vote that “the fight to protect voting rights is not over,” calling the test vote “the starting gun, not the finish line.”
Taxpayer Dollars to Candidates?
One of the chief criticisms from Republicans is that the proposal would redirect taxpayer money to candidates.
“It takes hardworking taxpayer money and gives it to candidates,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, said on Fox News on June 18. “Not by a dollar for dollar, but six to one. So, if AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] raises $200 online, you the hardworking taxpayer has to give her $1,200.”
“But this bill — just to give you one example of how bad it is — would actually take your tax dollars and send them to [Sen.] Bernie Sanders and any other politician running for office to run their campaign,” Sen. Tom Cotton said on Fox & Friends on June 21. “So think about that. Arkansans would be subsidizing Bernie Sanders’ campaigns. I don’t think many Americans want to see their tax dollars to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars going to support … politicians who they oppose attacking politicians they support.”
McCarthy and Cotton are talking about provisions in the bill that call for a public funding match for small-dollar donations to federal campaigns. It’s true, as McCarthy said, that the plan calls for matching contributions 6-to-1, meaning that if someone donated up to $200 to a candidate, the federal government would match that contribution with another $1,200.
Congressional candidates would have to meet certain criteria to qualify for the matching funds. For example, they’d have to raise at least $50,000 in small-dollar donations from at least 1,000 donors.
But there is partisan debate about whether those matching dollars are “taxpayer” dollars. According to the bill, matching public contributions would come exclusively from what the legislation calls the “Freedom from Influence Fund.”
The bill states that “No taxpayer funds may be deposited into the Fund.” (See Section 541.) Instead, the Freedom from Influence Fund would be financed through a 4.75% surcharge on certain criminal fines and civil settlements and fines collected by the federal government from corporate defendants and their executive officers.
Even though this would be a new surcharge, and the public financing would be entirely funded through that new surcharge, Republicans argue that government funds are fungible and any money collected by the government is therefore taxpayer dollars.
“The new surcharge would otherwise go to taxpayers,” Cotton’s press office said in a statement provided to FactCheck.org. “It’s taxpayer dollars, whatever they call it.“
A spokesman for Democrats on the Committee on House Administration said the public campaign financing programs are entirely self-funding and do not use any taxpayer revenue.
“This funding is not fungible, and the funds will only pay out what is collected through said fines on corporate malfeasance – if there’s not enough money, they won’t pay out the full amount,” the spokesman said.
The spokesman cites several examples of the types of fines to which a surcharge would be added, including a $5 billion fine levied by the federal government against Facebook in 2019 for mishandling users’ personal information and a $4.3 billion fine paid by Volkswagen in 2017 for cheating on diesel emission tests.
The ‘Speech Czar’
In an effort to address what a spokesman for Democrats on the Committee on House Administration called “modern-day gridlock that has essentially crippled the FEC and allowed big spenders to violate campaign finance laws with impunity,” H.R. 1. seeks to restructure the balance of power on the FEC board.
Currently, the FEC is run by six commissioners, three each representing the respective political parties. They are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Under H.R. 1, the commission would be pared to five members, with no more than two affiliated with any one party. That would mean two for each party, and a fifth unaffiliated member. However, the president would still appoint all of the members, subject to advice and consent of the Senate.
The president would also designate one of the appointments to act as chair of the commission, who would be given new powers. Among the enumerated powers of the chair: they would act as chief administrative officer of the commission; could appoint and remove the staff director; and could subpoena witnesses.
Republicans say this new chair would essentially become a campaign “speech czar.”
According to the conservative Institute for Free Speech, H.R. 1 would, “Empower the Chair of the Commission, who will be hand-picked by the president, to serve as a de facto ‘Speech Czar,’ with the sole power to, among other things, appoint (and remove) the Commission’s Staff Director, prepare its budget, require any person to submit, under oath, written reports and answers to questions, issue subpoenas, and compel testimony.”
“It gives a speech czar just like what high tech does now,” McCarthy said on Fox. “It will tell us what we can say in campaigns and what we cannot. … What it does, it makes Hollywood pretty much in charge of our campaigns. … We would no longer be able to criticize China or anything else or hold them accountable.”
“I have no idea how making the FEC have a chair would prevent anyone from ‘criticiz[ing] China’ or anyone else,” Hasen told us via email.
Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT who specializes in elections, said McCarthy appears to be relying on the talking point from the Institute for Free Speech.
“The term ‘speech czar’ is part of the rhetorical strategy of Republicans to equate all spending with speech,” Stewart told us via email. “As you know, HR1 would end the 3-3 partisan balance on the FEC, allowing it to be controlled by one of the parties, with the President appointing the chair, who would have authority over enforcement actions. So, while it would be an exercise in rhetoric rather than legal reasoning, it might be reasonable to call the chair the ‘campaign finance czar,’ but to call the chair the ‘speech czar’ is part of a larger political movement to equate all regulation of campaign finance regulation of speech, and therefore unconstitutional.”
DMV and ‘Voter Fraud’
Seeking, unsuccessfully, to craft an alternative voting bill that might get bipartisan support, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin released a list of voting changes he would support, including “Automatic registration through DMV, with option to opt out.”
McCarthy claimed in his Fox News interview that automatic registrations through the Department of Motor Vehicles led to “multiple cases of fraud” when it was instituted in California.
“I’m worried about this, because you see what Joe Manchin is saying today,” McCarthy said. “That — automatic voter registration, that you do it through DMVs? That’s what we found in California, multiple cases of fraud.”
A federal law enacted in 1993, popularly known as the Motor Voter law, requires states to provide citizens with the opportunity to register to vote when they get a driver’s license.
But in recent years, 19 states including California have created a mechanism to do so by default. Since April 2018, Californians who get a driver’s license or change their address through the DMV are automatically registered to vote, unless they choose to opt out.
But the new policy in California was not without glitches in its first year. A state audit in 2019 discovered that automated voter registration at DMV offices resulted in almost 84,000 duplicate records and more than 171,000 errors in voter registration related to political party preference, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In late 2018, the California secretary of state’s office said roughly 1,500 people — including noncitizens — were erroneously registered to vote through the state’s motor-voter program. The office said those registrations have since been cancelled, but in August 2019, it announced that six people who were erroneously registered “due to DMV errors” actually voted in the 2018 elections (none were undocumented immigrants who applied for the state’s special licenses that don’t require proof that recipients are in the country legally).
None of the six were charged with voter fraud, however.
“The six individuals were inadvertently registered through the California Motor Voter program due to DMV errors and based on state law are not guilty of fraudulently voting or attempting to vote,” the secretary of state’s office said in a statement. “All of these voter registrations have been canceled.”
A spokesman for Democrats on the Committee on House Administration said California’s rollout hiccups are hardly a reason to scrap automatic voter registration at DMVs.
“When California first put in place its new computer database system for voter registrations at its DMV, there was a programming flaw that caused it to mix up records,” the spokesman told us via email. “The problem was quickly detected, contained, and fixed, according to the state’s DMV director. That flaw had nothing to do with the fact that registration was made automatic; it related to a new computer program. … AVR is highly successful in CA. The state has experienced dramatic surges in voter registrations and there have been no further problems reported.”
H.R. 1 and Voter ID
Republicans have said one of their chief complaints about H.R. 1 is that it would supersede state voter ID laws.
“You don’t want to have an ID because that’s what H.R. 1 does, it takes away anybody seeing an ID,” McCarthy said on Fox News.
“One is it bans voter ID, where people, when they go and ask for a ballot are normally in Wyoming and certainly around the country, asked to prove that they are who they say they are,” Sen. John Barrasso said at a Senate Republicans press conference on June 17.
At the same press conference, Sen. Ted Cruz said, “29 states have adopted voter ID laws, reasonable common sense steps to protect the integrity of elections. The Corrupt Politicians Act [Cruz’s nickname for H.R. 1] would repeal all of those voter ID laws.”
As we have written, H.R. 1 wouldn’t ban state laws that ask voters to show identification at the polls. It would modify the effect of some of those laws, though.
Referring to strict versions of voter ID laws, H.R. 1 says, “[O]nerous voter identification requirements” have “eroded access to the right to vote.” It goes on to add that those requirements more heavily impact minority communities. Indeed, despite calls for voter ID laws to prevent voter fraud, there have been very few documented instances of such fraud.
“What we do know about voter ID laws is they deprive many voters of their right to vote, reduce participation, and stand in opposition to including more Americans in the democratic process,” the spokesman for the Democrats on the Committee on House Administration told us in an email. “Studies show that as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have government issued photo ID, and that percentage is even higher for seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, low income voters, and students.”
The House bill would allow voters to get around state ID laws if they present a statement “signed by the individual under penalty of perjury, attesting to the individual’s identity and attesting that the individual is eligible to vote in the election.” This option would apply only for federal elections.
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