But Our Chance to Preempt Voter Suppression Could Expire at Any Moment
March 17, 2021
When the U.S. House of Representatives passed the For the People Act (H.R. 1 in the House, S. 1 in the Senate) on March 3, all but one Democrat voted in favor. Every Republican vote opposed it.
Passing the voter protections of the For the People Act is the only path for democracy advocates to halt many of the 250-plus voter suppression bills stacked up in state capitols around the country. Republican vote suppressors have an easier task: they need only delay passage of S. 1 while more of those state bills become law — putting the onus on voting rights defenders to overturn laws in court, even if S. 1 passes.
Each passing day also brings another chance for Senate control to flip back to Republicans. Many Democratic elders hail from states where, in the event of their death, a Republican governor would select their replacement or the seat would remain vacant until a special election is held. Such an event would almost certainly flip Senate control to Republicans by at least a 50-49 margin and doom strong voter protection. Democrats don’t have the luxury of moving methodically.
The urgency also comes from the potency of the For the People Act. If passed, S. 1 would be the greatest forward leap for democracy in generations. While voting rights are central to the bill, it also would secure election processes and take vital steps to neutralize the power of big money to determine our choices and control politicians. This includes a 6 to 1 match for small donor candidate contributions, giving candidates a huge incentive to increase time spent engaging normal people, rather than courting megadonors.
Regarding the 2010 Citizens United v FEC ruling, the For the People Act says, “The Supreme Court’s misinterpretation of the Constitution to empower monied interests at the expense of the American people in elections has seriously eroded over 100 years of congressional action to promote fairness and protect elections from the toxic influence of money.” S. 1 backs up the words with tough controls over corporate electioneering. Corporate executives would be barred from using shareholders’ money for political spending without first demonstrating shareholder support — a step few corporations would attempt.
Filling hundreds of pages, the For the People Act is vast, largely due to its thoroughness. The Brennan Center for Justice created an excellent guide to the Act for those who want to dive deep. To help understand what the Act would do, we summarized the provisions and placed them in 3 groupings.
Preventing Disenfranchisement & Making Voting Easier
- Establish two weeks of in-person early voting, including Sundays and during non-business hours;
- Require states to create nonpartisan redistricting commissions (for US Congressional districts) and quantifiable criteria for district drawing (addresses district gerrymandering);
- Establish automatic voter registration at an array of state agencies;
- Enable voters to register on Election Day;
- Enable online voter registration;
- Provide prepaid postage for mail ballots, removing some financial hurdles to voting;
- Ends prison gerrymandering by counting people as residents of where they last lived for apportioning representation, not where they’re incarcerated;
- End felony disenfranchisement for those on parole, probation, or post-sentence;
- Make it a crime to mislead voters with the intention of preventing them from voting;
- Allow state colleges and universities to register voters, reducing efforts to impede student voting;
- Allow 16 and 17-year olds to pre-register so they’ll be on voter rolls when they turn 18;
- Ban states from purging eligible voters’ registration solely for infrequent voting;
Increasing Election Integrity
- Allow voters to track their absentee mail ballots;
- Grant funds to states to upgrade their election security infrastructure;
- Require paper ballots filled by hand or machines that use them as official records and let voters verify their choices;
Reducing the Power of Money Over Candidates & Elections
- Improve campaign finance disclosure rules;
- Ban corporations from spending on campaigns unless they have a process to determine the political will of shareholders;
- Require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns;
- Provide public financing for House campaigns by matching small donations at a 6:1 rate, so your $10 donation yields $70 for the candidate. This measure would incentivize candidates to seek out small donations from every constituent, rather than focusing on the wealthy. It also would lead to a more diverse candidate pool since access to wealthy donors would no longer be a prerequisite. The program would not use tax revenue — it will be funded by a surcharge on criminal and civil penalties paid by corporations to the federal government.
What the Act Leaves Undone
The For the People Act does not fully eliminate the need to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and fix earlier damage to the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Washington, D.C. Admission Act (HR. 51) is needed to grant full political rights to citizens in our capital and The Vote at Home Act advances vote-by-mail protections. Enacting the For the People Act also will not eliminate the need to drive an affirmative right to vote into our Constitution. Finally, the bill passed by the House needs cleanup to purge overly prescriptive language re election administration (e.g. micromanaging local election officials).
But the For the People Act would transform U.S. elections for the better. It will improve security, transparency, voter access, and protect citizens from the barrage of voter suppression bills encompassing dozens of distinct tactics across 43 state legislatures.
To be clear, there are some unnecessary, inappropriate and potentially unconstitutional provisions in HR. 1, as passed by the House. Making Election Day a holiday would undermine the importance of opening a two week window to spread out voting and diminish the opportunity to disrupt voters. And the service workers most challenged for time to vote don’t get a day off just because it’s a holiday. The bill also contains measures unrelated to voting (e.g. new ethics rules for the U.S. Supreme Court) that, regardless of merit, should be expunged to remove easy lines of attack from opponents. Election law expert Rick Hasen wrote (Wa. Post account required) the best good-faith critique of HR. 1 we’ve seen. Jessica Huseman critiques the timeline for demands thrust upon election administrators in the bill (as passed by the House) and the Brennan Center published a thorough response to these critiques..
While expanding democracy should be a non-partisan cause, Republican Senators also have signaled their opposition. So passage of S. 1 will depend on the 48 Democratic and two Independent Senators valuing our voting rights enough to reform (or eliminate) the filibuster and force a vote on the merits of the bill. Democracy advocates received a boost on March 16 when President Biden announced his support for filibuster reform after months of proclaiming Republicans were capable of good faith negotiation.
Failing to pass the For the People Act will enable a wave of state-level voter suppression laws that could lock Republicans into control of (at least) the House of Representatives and many state legislatures for years to come. Let’s contact our Senators’ offices to urge reforming the filibuster and demand that S. 1 receive a hearing and vote. Along with direct communication to Senators, sending a letter to the editor of your local paper and calling in to talk radio shows are key ways to influence your Senators.
The writer, Jeff Milchen, founded Reclaim Democracy! Twitter: @JMilchen. Brittany Trushel provided research and formatting.
Thanks to Stephen Wolf’s Voting Rights Roundup newsletter from Daily Kos for helping follow and understand state and federal voting rights bills. To fully grasp the scope of voter suppression tactics in play, see 46 Ways to Disenfranchise and Suppress Voters.