Chris Deluzio
Rep. Chris Deluzio has introduced a Defend Democracy Agenda. Matt Rourke/AP

Why Voting Rights Are at the Center of One Battleground House Race

“It’s not enough, I think, to say, the Jan. 6 insurrection was terrible — of course it was terrible,” said Rep. Chris Deluzio. “We also have to tend to this democracy of ours.”

A first-term Democrat in Congress is banking his future on something many members of his party in similarly competitive races are largely underplaying: defending democracy and promoting voting rights.

There’s been minimal legislative attention on voting access from Democrats since 2021, when the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House but died in the Senate. But that hasn’t stopped Rep. Chris Deluzio from making this the centerpiece of his highly competitive reelection campaign in western Pennsylvania.

Deluzio, perhaps more than any other vulnerable Democrat, is set up to focus on the message. After serving six years as a naval officer, including a tour in Iraq, Deluzio then focused on voting rights and election security law as an attorney, before running for Congress.

The first part of his Defend Democracy Agenda, published last month, ranges from initiatives as minute as clarifying how spending reports are filed to as ambitious and divisive as overturning Citizens United. The agenda also includes a ban on congressional stock ownership. The next part of his agenda, centered on election security, will be unveiled in the next month, according to Deluzio’s office.

But despite rolling out the agenda and making it a centerpiece of his campaign, Deluzio doesn’t see it getting done in Congress this year.

“Republicans aren’t going to do anything on this with us,” he told NOTUS in his office.

Deluzio will be facing Republican state Rep. Rob Mercuri in the general; neither in the 17th District has a primary challenger. For Mercuri, also a military veteran, the top issues in the district are crime, energy and the southern border. For Deluzio, it’s defending freedom — a broad umbrella covering both voting rights and abortion access.

Mercuri has a clear position on voting access. He voted in favor of a failed bill in 2022 that would have raised the voting age to 21. He co-sponsored the Voting Rights Protection Act in 2021, which would have limited the use of ballot-return drop boxes and restricted the amount of time to register to vote and vote by mail. He also supported a provision in the 2022 state budget that would have set aside funds to create a Bureau of Election Audits. Pennsylvania’s then-Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed that provision, telling reporters that he was concerned the bureau was “going to be another effort to re-litigate the 2020 election.”

That election is still being litigated in the state. This week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court prevented Republicans from subpoenaing voter information for the purpose of an “election integrity investigation.”

Mercuri voted for the former president in 2020, but has refused to comment on whether he’ll be supporting him this fall. Deluzio wouldn’t speak directly on Mercuri, but criticized Republicans in his state as “out of touch.”

“To not be able to condemn what Donald Trump tried to do on Jan. 6, it’s cowardice, it is a lack of courage, and we can’t trust those kinds of folks in office at this moment,” he said.

Mercuri, who was elected to the state legislature in 2020, did condemn the violence on Jan. 6, tweeting at the time that “in a republic, rivals need not be enemies, and differences are settled by reasoned debate and the popular will.”

“It’s not enough, I think, to say, the Jan. 6 insurrection was terrible — of course it was terrible,” Deluzio said. “We also have to tend to this democracy of ours, and there are problems around money in politics and corruption and Congress that also contribute to distrust of government.”

Regardless, taking any side on voting rights and the future of democracy in America comes with familiar labeling. In separate statements on the race, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee similarly characterized their respective opponents in the race. Mercuri is “another out-of-touch extremist,” said a DCCC spokesperson; Deluzio is another “extreme House Democrat,” said an NRCC spokesperson.

The question that remains is if voting rights energize voters in 2024 the way it did for Deluzio and Democrats across the country in 2022.

To Roman Kozak, chair of the Beaver County GOP, “kitchen-table issues” like the economy drive voters in the district more than voting access. He also criticized Deluzio for joining the House Progressive Caucus.

“To be honest, he’s more like a California Democrat than a western Pennsylvania Democrat. And I just don’t think he’s representative of the people, especially in Beaver County,” he said.

Deluzio said his message on democracy is intended to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans in the district.

“We have to make clear to American people that protecting and strengthening democracy is at the core of what we’re going to do, and it is a top priority for us,” he said. “We should make that case to the voters, and I certainly will be talking about a lot on the campaign trail too.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how much time the congressman spent in Iraq. He was there on one tour.

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.