The US House of Representatives passed sweeping legislation to protect voting rights in America, as the Democratic majority in the lower chamber of Congress moved to counter Republican efforts to restrict ballot access.
The vote marked the latest salvo in the political battle over election laws in the wake of the 2020 election, when Donald Trump, the former president, refused to concede to Joe Biden and repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
The reforms included provisions for automatic voter registration, a requirement that states guarantee a window for early voting and allow mail-in ballots and the restoration of voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences.
“Everything is at stake, we must win this race,” Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, said ahead of the vote on Wednesday. “At the same time as we gather here to honour our democracy, across the country over 200 bills are being put together to suppress the vote.”
The bill passed by a margin of 220-210, with near-unanimous support among Democrats but no Republican backing.
It is unlikely to be approved by the Senate because it would need a bipartisan supermajority to advance in the upper chamber.
However, many House Democrats are expected to pressure their party’s senators over the coming weeks to change the rules to allow a simple majority vote, which would give the proposed measures a far better chance of being enacted.
“The right to vote is sacred and fundamental — it is the right from which all of our other rights as Americans spring,” Biden said on Thursday, adding that he would work with Congress to “refine and advance” the bill.
“This landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect that right, to safeguard the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen our democracy”.
Federal legislation on voting rights is seen by Democrats as a crucial safeguard heading into the 2022 midterm elections, when they are hoping to avoid defeats that would hand control of Congress back to the Republicans just two years into Biden’s presidency.
Republicans are resisting the Democratic efforts to protect voting rights, accusing them of a “takeover” of US elections that are mostly managed at the state level.
“Democrats did not design [the bill] to protect your vote. They designed it to put a thumb on the scale of every election in America and keep the Swamp swampy,” Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, wrote on Twitter.
The legislation is designed to neutralise efforts championed by Republicans in states such as Georgia to tighten ballot access by forcing individuals to bring identification to the polls and ban early voting on Sundays.
A legal challenge to state-level voting restrictions in Arizona is being considered by the US Supreme Court, but many legal analysts and activists do not expect the conservative majority to overturn the measures.
The House bill also contained measures to allow public funding of political campaigns, increase the transparency of political donations and require the disclosure by presidential candidates of 10 years of tax returns.
The bill would also limit the ability of states to redraw congressional districts along partisan lines.