Home » House GOP Tries to Turn the Page on Election Dead-Enders

House GOP Tries to Turn the Page on Election Dead-Enders

For one brief moment last week inside a conference room on Capitol Hill, it was November 2020 all over again.

The House Republican Election Integrity Caucus had invited Gabriel Sterling—the Georgia elections official who became famous for his debunkings of Donald Trump’s election conspiracies—to talk about his state’s new election rules.

Someone seated next to him at the meeting, however, wanted to talk about something else.

Facing him directly, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) dredged up the greatest hits from the Stop The Steal era, falsely alleging that “thousands” of dead people cast ballots in Georgia in 2020, flatly declaring that “Trump won Georgia,” and telling a story about her ex-husband’s problems at his polling place.

The rant became public when Greene posted it to Twitter as a gift “on behalf of President Trump and all his voters in Georgia.” It’s unclear exactly how Sterling countered her. He did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast, but he later tweeted a photo of himself nonchalantly drinking a Coca-Cola while Greene spoke, saying, “some still deal in disproven conspiracies.”

Even if the substance of Greene’s speech couldn’t have been more tired, it represented something notable: a House Republican actually talking about the 2020 election in a public forum on Capitol Hill since the GOP took the majority in January.

Although Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vowed ahead of the 2022 election that Republicans would prioritize “election integrity” if they won power, there are so far few signs of movement or broad appetite within the House GOP to take action on the issue.

The marquee Republican election reform bill from the last session of Congress, a mix of some popular policies as well as more partisan proposals, has not yet been reintroduced.

The chairman of the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over election bills, did not indicate that passing a broad reform package was a priority in his remarks at the panel’s first meeting. “Our role is limited,” said Rep. Bryan Steil (R-WI), “and we must uphold our federalist principles.” (Steil’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on his legislative plans.)

The right flank of the House GOP, meanwhile, is not exactly clamoring for action itself. A pair of hard-right lawmakers, Reps. Bob Good (R-VA) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ), have introduced separate MAGA-inspired election bills. Gosar’s, for instance, mandates the use of paper ballots nationwide. It has no cosponsors.

When asked by The Daily Beast about the status of election bills, even Greene distanced Republicans from the issue, citing concerns over federalism. “Our voters don’t want it to go away,” she said. “So it should never go away. But we aren’t controlling state elections.”

What Republicans may end up advancing, lawmakers and observers say, could be a narrower version of last year’s legislation—targeted at the District of Columbia’s election rules—and a national voter ID law, which has broad GOP support.

If those plans seem diminished compared to the lofty promises and fiery rhetoric on “election integrity” that Republicans offered after 2020, they are.

Increasingly, what most GOP lawmakers understand, but only some are willing to say out loud, is that pursuing election changes even perceived as being responsive to Trump’s conspiracies leads only to political pain.

The results of the 2022 midterm election, in which voters delivered stinging rebukes of candidates who campaigned heavily on denying the 2020 election, should serve as a warning sign to Republican lawmakers, said Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE).

“If you look backwards, we’re going to lose,” he said. “If you’re focused on the wrong thing, you can’t improve.”

While McCarthy is always delicately balancing the wings of the fractious House GOP, his task could become smoother if rightwingers like Greene decline to make much of the “election integrity” push—beyond the stray dunk on a figure like Sterling.

(Greene herself reasoned to The Daily Beast, because she had just had a very public fight with Sterling, that was proof that Republicans hadn’t let their issues with the 2020 election “go by the wayside.”)

But across the GOP conference, Republicans held up federalism as a reason for caution—even if many of those same lawmakers were supportive of Trump’s effort to invalidate state election policies, and overrule millions of voters, by rejecting certain states’ electoral votes.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), a member of House GOP leadership who assisted Trump in his legal efforts to overturn the 2020 election result, told The Daily Beast that “the conservative position is always, we don’t want to federalize elections, we resist the federal government intervening too much in trying to control elections.”

Elections, Johnson said, are a “chief concern.”

“But with regard to what we can do specifically with legislation, that requires a lot of careful thought and deliberation, and I think some of that’s probably still going on,” he said.

Of course, anything that passes the House would have to win the approval of the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Joe Biden to become law. That means GOP moves on elections are, for now, mostly politically symbolic—which may point to a deeper issue behind the party’s caution.

If the standard for the GOP base is now simply that the issue hasn’t “gone away” on Capitol Hill, as Greene said, it might not be hard to meet. Pressed by The Daily Beast about whether McCarthy was behind her, Greene said, “I’m sure he is.”

Lawmakers and outside experts anticipate Republicans will put some kind of bill forward soon. The American Confidence in Elections Act, written by former Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), was previously the closest thing Republicans had to a consensus bill on the subject.

The legislation proposes national voter ID, banning noncitizens from voting, and prohibiting private organizations from supporting public election administration—a bugaboo for conservatives who believe funds from Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation influenced the outcome of the 2020 election.

Given Congress’ purview over the nation’s capital, the bill would also apply a number of GOP-supported election changes to the District of Columbia, including broad restrictions on the use of ballot drop boxes and curtailing of mail-in voting, with an eye toward encouraging states to adopt similar policies.

That legislation has not been reintroduced yet since Republicans came into the majority. Davis, the original author, is no longer in Congress, after losing his primary last year.

In an interview, Davis—who remains active in D.C. as a lobbyist—told The Daily Beast he would not speculate on Republicans’ legislative plans. But he did say he intended his bill to be a roadmap.

“When we wrote that bill in the last Congress, it was to lay out our vision in case the majority of our caucus, in the majority, decided they wanted to address election-reform issues,” Davis said.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), a leading GOP moderate, said he intends to introduce a national voter ID bill and intends to recruit a Democratic co-sponsor. “I’m not sure beyond that,” he said.

A national voter ID bill would, in all likelihood, easily surpass the 218 votes needed to pass the House, perhaps with some Democratic votes. One GOP lawmaker said a D.C. focused voting bill would also easily unite the conference.

Given that Republicans hold only a nine-seat House advantage over Democrats, math is where their legislative plans meet political reality, particularly on an issue as thorny and potentially divisive as “election integrity.”

Election proposals supported by the hard right would likely have a difficult time passing the House. Gosar’s legislation to require paper ballots nationally flies in the face of conservatives’ rhetoric on federalism, even though the party base believes the proposal is urgently needed.

Good’s bill, which is co-sponsored by fellow Freedom Caucus members Reps. Scott Perry (R-PA) and Mary Miller (R-IL), blocks jurisdictions from receiving federal grant money unless they implement a number of changes.

At this early stage, some Republicans suspect key lawmakers are planning a legislative process that contains disagreement and makes it less likely that internal differences on “election integrity” spill over into public view.

Another risk stems from Republican moves to make it easier for members to propose amendments on a bill, which means any election-related legislation could quickly lead to votes on more fringe proposals.

Despite the toxic politics of election denialism, some observers say there is potential upside for Republicans in pursuing the issue. Many public opinion polls, for instance, indicate that majorities of voters approve of voter ID requirements.

Kevin Kosar, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Davis’ bill is a “serious piece of legislation” and expects Republicans to take up a version of it.

“This is a way of dealing with actual elections policy and doing it in a way that speaks to those out there who may feel aggrieved without relitigating it,” Kosar said.

Whether that balance can be struck politically—or if it’s possible to truly address that grievance at all—is another matter. Asked what he thought of Republicans who want to turn the page on the 2020 election, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) offered a hint.

“They have the right to be wrong about that,” he said. “But I’m certainly not forgetting what happened in November 2020.”


March 2023