Praised by many as a sweeping and historic reform to US democracy, House Democrats passed H.R. 1, also known as the For The People Act. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on March 3, 2021. This is the second time the bill has been voted on by the House. The bill was first introduced and then passed in the newly-Democratic House in March of 2019 but was quickly blocked from ever receiving a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. The current bill, which aims to greatly expand voting rights, develop a strategy to lower the influence of money in politics, end gerrymandering, foster government transparency, and more, will again face hurdles in the Senate, but this time because of the filibuster.
So, what’s in the bill? Below, we’ll take a look at a few of the bill’s most important components.
Voter registration modernization
All states would be required to begin Automatic Voter Registration for federal elections. Eighteen states, plus DC, have already implemented AVR. Voter registration in every state would become opt-out as opposed to the opt-in system most states have. In this case, eligible citizens would need to indicate that they don’t want to be registered to vote. This is likely to be a very insignificant number of people. Some 50 million eligible voters would be added to the rolls.
Voter purging has been one of the main tactics employed by Republicans to suppress Democratic turnout. A state’s ability to purge voters from voter rolls would be greatly curtailed under H.R. 1. H.R. 1 would not stop all cross-check purges, as there does need to be a system that identifies duplicate registrations, but it aims to stop the abuse of the system through voter suppression purges by putting in place needed protections or so-called conditions on removal of registered voters.
As it becomes harder for Republicans to win majorities, we’ve seen them engage in increasingly brazen voter intimidation tactics. One example, among dozens, is in Michigan in October 2020, where far-right actors were charged with felonies by the state’s Attorney General for voter intimidation where they used racist robocalls to target and intimidate Black voters from voting. H.R. 1 would ban these and many other deceptive practices and all voter intimidation in federal elections.
H.R. 1 aims to end the disenfranchisement of individuals with previous felony convictions. States would be required to inform citizens of their restored voting rights in writing; however, this does not apply to those who are currently incarcerated. An amendment to H.R. 1 that would have restored the voting rights of those who are currently serving time in prison, failed in a 97-328 House vote.
Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri and Mondaire Jones of New York, who were both elected to the House last year, proposed an amendment to H.R. 1 that would have allowed those convicted of felonies to vote from within prison. Only Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., enable anyone with a felony conviction to vote from prison, and other states are debating whether to join them. Some other nations, including Canada and Israel, have national mandates that extend voting rights to incarcerated people.
The amendment failed today in a 97-328 vote. Not a single Republican voted for the measure, and it also failed among Democrats. However, activists and lawmakers fighting to expand voting rights say they’re hopeful that the vote was the beginning, rather than the end, of a national debate on voting rights for prisoners.
“This fight is not over—it’s only the beginning,” Bush told The Appeal: Political Report. “The victory was in getting those 97. Look at who those 97 are. They’re a mixture of what our caucus is made of: not just progressives, not just people who claim to be progressive, not just people who look like me.”
Even with the failure of the amendment, this is a monumental step in the right direction and a sign that we are moving closer to voting rights for those who are currently incarcerated.
The end of gerrymandering
Under H.R. 1, partisan gerrymandering would effectively be banned, an extraordinary development for US elections and politics. Independent redistricting commissions would be created in states and they would be tasked with developing plans to redraw districts. The redistricting process would be open to participation and review of the public. Efforts would be made to ensure that the commission equally represents Democrats, Republicans, and even third parties. Most importantly, rules would be put in place to ensure that the political power of communities of color is not diluted, a current practice that ensures Republicans win far more seats than they should based on their vote share.
Limiting the power of big money in politics
The passing of Citizens United in 2010 was a crushing blow to democracy. 11 years and 6 federal election cycles later, we are seeing the consequences of this disastrous Supreme Court decision. Extremely wealthy individuals can now spend unlimited sums of money on Super PACs which can have large impacts on political races.
Under the bill, candidates for congressional office could opt into a system that would provide matching funds for small donations. To qualify, the candidate would need to raise $50,000 from at least 1,000 individuals; take no more than $1,000 from any contributor; and spend no more than $50,000 of their own money.
In return, all donations to the candidate up to $200 would be matched with public funds at a 6 to 1 ratio. Thus if you gave $10 to someone running for Congress, they would receive that plus another $60, totaling $70.
The Civil Rights Act of our time
We’ve only covered just a few of the historic components of H.R. 1. Just these components alone would make H.R. 1 one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of this country besides the 1964 Civil Rights Act. H.R. 1 would not only repair the damage done to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Republicans in the decades since its passing, but it would greatly expand access to voting and put in place protections against voter suppression in unprecedented ways. The act would help to build a political and electoral system worthy of the 21st century.
The stakes in passing this historic legislation in the Senate are monumental. As Republican politics continue to become more unpopular with time and as demographics continue to trend against them, they have now completely jettisoned democracy for authoritarian measures even as they already have a structural advantage in the House and the Senate. Let there be no doubt that Republican attempts to further impair US democracy will continue and grow.
The Washington Post explains the current, broad attack on US democracy in 43 states:
In 43 states across the country, Republican lawmakers have proposed at least 250 laws that would limit mail, early in-person and Election Day voting with such constraints as stricter ID requirements, limited hours or narrower eligibility to vote absentee, according to data compiled as of Feb. 19 by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. Even more proposals have been introduced since then.
The impact of H.R. 1 not passing the Senate will have immediate effects. It will likely impair Democrats’ chances of holding on to their very slim majorities in the House and Senate in 2022, making passing this type of legislation impossible for many years to come.
What’s required is filibuster reform. Right now, current Senate rules require 60 votes to break a filibuster. It’s more likely that we will figure out interstellar space travel this year than it would be to find 10 Republicans to help break a filibuster for ground-breaking legislation. It’s also unlikely that we can even eliminate the filibuster outright since conservative Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have both voiced that they are against eliminating the filibuster. Still, passing H.R. 1, or any other progressive legislation, doesn’t require the elimination of the filibuster. There are ways to reform the filibuster in a way that establishes majoritarianism in the Senate. Our recent article offers a fair compromise on the filibuster. The Washington Post article referenced above also offers proposals for filibuster reform.
We must pass H.R. 1 — for the people and for the survival of our democracy.
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