Understanding How HR 4 ‘Gives Federal Bureaucrats Control’ Over Local Election Laws

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The House Rules Committee voted Monday on rules governing debate on election legislation known as HR 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The controversial bill now goes to the House for a vote. 

After Democrats failed to pass HR 1, a partisan piece of election legislation, they crafted HR 4, which Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky says is a danger to states’ election rights. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

HR 4 “gives federal bureaucrats control over all these state [election] rules all over the country,” says von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission. “It is an unbelievable invasion of state sovereignty.” 

The bill is likely to pass along party lines in the House, but faces a battle in the evenly divided Senate, he says. 

Von Spakovsky joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain why the left is advocating federal control of elections, and how HR 4 would affect the nation if it were to become law. 

We also cover these stories:

  • The Food and Drug Administration formally approves the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.
  • The Pentagon plans to mandate that all U.S. military personnel be vaccinated.
  • Monday was Andrew Cuomo’s last day serving as governor of New York.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky. Hans, thank you so much for being here.

Hans von Spakovsky:
 Sure, thanks for having me.

Allen: We are talking today about a very important piece of election legislation. For many of our listeners, they may remember that back in March, we were hearing a lot about a bill called HR 1, and the House actually passed HR 1 at the beginning of March. It was essentially a federal takeover of elections, and it was a very partisan piece of legislation. And even though it passed in the House, it really floundered in the Senate because there was not enough votes for it to overcome a Republican filibuster. But now what we’re seeing is that House Democrats have introduced a voting bill known as HR 4.

So Hans, if you would just explain what exactly the differences are between HR 1 and HR 4, and could HR 4 be described as a federal takeover of elections in the same way that HR 1 was?


Von Spakovsky: Yes, it could. Essentially the same, even though they’re different bills. HR 1 was a 900-page monstrosity, and it, in essence, it was a federal takeover. It voided all kinds of state laws and rules, mostly those concerned with the security and the integrity of the election process. And then it put in a whole series of mandates. 

A quick example of these is that it threw out all state voter ID laws. No state would be allowed to ask anyone for an ID when they vote.

At the same time, it required states to put in same-day voter registration. That means they have to allow you to walk into a polling place on Election Day, register, and immediately vote. Well, that means election officials have no time to actually verify any of the information you’re providing when you register. If they can’t ask for an ID, you could walk into numerous polling places using false names, false addresses, and vote all day, as many times as you want. That’s how bad HR 1 was.

They distilled this 900-page bill down now to a new one that’s about 60 pages. It doesn’t have all of those bans and mandates in it, but it basically would accomplish the same thing. Because what it does is, in essence, says federal bureaucrats will have the ability to veto any state election laws and rules they don’t like. If a state legislature passes a voter ID requirement, it won’t be effective until, and unless, they actually submit it to the U.S. Justice Department for review.

So it gives federal bureaucrats control over all these state rules all over the country. It is an unbelievable invasion of state sovereignty, and it’s very clear they are expecting the very liberal career lawyers inside the Civil Rights Division, where I used to work, to basically take it upon themselves to reject and throw out all the laws they tried to ban outright in HR 1. And I can tell you, that’s exactly what would happen.

Allen: So, under HR 4, what I’m hearing is, not only does it take away a lot of states’ rights, state sovereignty, but it also creates a ton of red tape for those states that want to change their voting laws in any way. Is that pretty accurate?

Von Spakovsky: 
No, that is accurate. I mean, it even goes down to the point where if you want to change a polling location—and think about it, there are tens of thousands of polling places across the country. You want to change a polling location, you will have to get it approved by the U.S. Justice Department. It’s basically a way of saying to states, and to the residents of each state, “We are no longer going to allow you to set up what the rules are for running elections in your state.”

Allen: So under current law, what do states have to do to update their election laws?

Von Spakovsky:
 Well, they simply pass a piece of legislation the way states have recently done, and they’ve just ended a legislative session. They can pass reform, they can make other changes. Now, the one thing they have to do is, of course, they can’t put in any kind of election law that is racially discriminatory.

If you pass a law where you deliberately intend to and it has the effect of discriminating based on race, obviously, you can’t do that. But the way the system currently works, that’s prohibited under the Voting Rights Act. 

And if the Justice Department, or a private group, thinks that a law is discriminatory, what do they have to do? Well, they have to go to court and prove to a court that it’s discriminatory. That would all be reversed under HR 4, because in essence, the burden of proof would be on the state to prove their innocence with these federal bureaucrats.

Allen: So let’s say if a state like Iowa wanted to update their voter laws, and if HR 4 passed and was implemented into law, then there would be all sorts of hoops that that state, let’s say Iowa, would have to jump through in order to make those simple changes.

Von Spakovsky:
 No, that’s right. And for folks who think, “Well, this is OK because the career lawyers who work inside the Civil Rights Division”—and that’s the office that would get this veto authority—”well, we’re sure they’re objective, nonpartisan, federal civil servants,” that couldn’t be more wrong. 

I used to work there. And in 2013, the inspector general of the Justice Department issued a report on that office talking about, and describing, all kinds of misbehavior, unethical and unprofessional behavior, there. They are very, very partisan.

And one of the criticisms was that when they were hiring new lawyers into the career slots, which was supposed to be nonpolitical, they ignored the resumes of well-qualified professional lawyers because they only wanted to hire from five radical left-wing advocacy organizations, including, by the way, the ACLU. 

So this law, HR 4, if it passes, it’s as if you gave the ACLU and other such organizations the ability to veto any state law, anywhere in the country, they don’t like.

Allen: And what do we know about the objectives of the left? I mean, if HR 4 passes, what follows? What are the kinds of pieces of voting legislation that then they’re going to either try to knock down or implement to really change how our elections work?

Von Spakovsky:
 They will get rid of and say that every voter ID law in the country is void. They will tell states that they can’t do the kind of maintenance that needs to be done on registration lists to make sure they’re accurate. 

So for example, if states want to check with other states to find people who are potentially registered in more than one state, and therefore might have the opportunity to illegally vote in more than one state, they’re going to try to prevent them from doing that.

In essence, they’re going to arrange things so it’s easy to cheat and easy to manipulate election results. And if people think I’m exaggerating about this, during the Clinton administration, the Civil Rights Division was forced to pay out over $4 million in attorney’s fees and costs to states and others who they had targeted, claiming that those folks had engaged in discrimination in the voting context, and court ruled against them saying that the claims they had made were frivolous.

Allen: I want to talk a little bit more about voter ID laws, because I think that’s something that is so basic, and I think most Americans think that’s pretty basic, to show an ID when you go to vote. We have to show an ID when we buy alcohol or when we board a plane. There’s so many times when it’s very normal and natural to be able to prove, “This is who I’m saying I am.”

And if you look at the numbers, I mean, even during the pandemic, in 2020, we had the highest voter turnout since 1900. So obviously, current voter ID laws, they’re not hindering people from voting. And then in a new poll conducted by Honest Elections Project Action, they found that 78% of Hispanic voters support voter ID and 67% of Democratic voters support voter ID. 

So Hans, given these numbers, why do you think that we’re seeing this push from the left to make these broad changes to our election laws and to get rid of things like voter ID?

Von Spakovsky: Well, those polls really show the deep divide between ordinary Americans—no matter which political party they are affiliated with or like to support—and frankly, the leadership and elected officials, for example, of the Democratic Party. 

If you speak to them or you read what they write or hear what they say, I mean, they think requiring an ID is the equivalent of Jim Crow. I mean, they think it’s the equivalent of the terrible things the Ku Klux Klan was trying to do, which is, of course, absurd, but it’s totally divorced from what their constituents think about this because their constituents think, “I have to show an ID for so many things every day, no matter what my race or ethnicity is, and it’s just not a big deal for voting,” but you cannot convince them of that.

Look, I testified at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, a subcommittee, just about a week ago, and the witnesses for the Democrats there who were pushing HR 4, I mean, from what they were saying, you’d think that it was 1875 in the U.S., when Reconstruction ended, and that there was massive discrimination going on all over the country, which historically is just so completely wrong and so divorced from the current conditions today, which is, in the voting context, there is less discrimination going on today than ever before in our history. And when it happens, it is extremely rare.

Allen: Yeah. Well, Hans, you’ve been so consistently speaking out on this issue, really sharing facts, sharing data. You recently wrote a piece in The Washington Times titled “The Left’s Fight Against Election Reforms Is a Trojan Horse.” And in that piece, you say that the left is using election reforms as a Trojan horse, to get something even bigger. What is that something even bigger that the left is trying to get?

Von Spakovsky: 
Well, they want to override the ability of the minority in the Senate to filibuster a bill. And look, for folks to understand what that means, in order for a bill to get to a vote in the Senate, you have to end the debate over the bill, and it takes 60 votes to end debate. And the point of the filibuster rule, which has been a law around for a long, long time, is to prevent the tyranny of the majority. Something that the Founders talked about at the beginning of our country.

It’s a good rule. It means that bills that finally pass Congress are going to have bipartisan support, and that’s very important to their legitimacy and people complying with the law. If it’s just one party passing the rules and the laws, they are just not going to have the legitimacy and the mandate that’s needed. 

And they want to get rid of the filibuster so that they can, basically, one party, pass all of these other changes they want to do. Everything from massive spending to the Green New Deal, which would probably wreck the economy of the United States, to all kinds of other just terrible changes. And they’re using this supposedly myth that there’s all this voter suppression going on to say, “Oh, we’ve got to end the filibuster so we can pass these voting rights law amendments.”

Allen: So what happens next? I mean, the House Rules Committee voted on HR 4 Monday, now the bill’s going to go to the House floor for a vote. What are you expecting to see from the House? Will this be a completely partisan vote on HR 4?

Von Spakovsky:
 Yeah, I think it will. That’s exactly what happened with HR 1. It was a party-line vote on HR 1, with the exception of one single Democrat from Mississippi who crossed the line to vote against HR 1, and I expect the same thing on HR 4. 

Look, they are in such a hurry to get this bill through that they only introduced … the language of the bill last week, and they’ve already scheduled a vote on it so quickly, because they want to get it through as fast as possible.

Allen: And if it does pass the House, what do you anticipate seeing in the Senate?

Von Spakovsky:
 Well, I’m hopeful that Republicans will, once again, recognize just how dangerous this bill [is.] And look, this really shouldn’t be a partisan issue. I’m hoping Republicans will filibuster and stop it because the reason I say it shouldn’t be a partisan issue is because, look, if you’re a state legislator, I don’t care which party you’re with, you should not support the federal government taking away from you and the voters of your state the ability to determine what the rules are going to be for elections in your state. And if you vote for HR 4, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re showing your contempt for the voters in your state.

Allen: Hans, any final thoughts before we let you go?

Von Spakovsky:
 I just think it’s unbelievable that they’re bringing up this bill, an unneeded bill, a dangerous bill, when we are in the midst of these terrible other crises. Everything from what seems to be a resurgence of COVID to the disaster in Afghanistan, and yet what is their priority? This bill.

Allen: Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky. If you want to read more of his work, you can visit the The Heritage Foundation website or The Daily Signal website, and you can read more of Hans’ pieces there. But Hans, we really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.

Von Spakovsky:
 Sure, thanks for having me.