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The Burning Urgency of Passing the "For the People Act"

Our chance to preempt voter suppression could expire at any moment.

Staffers place a sign on a podium in preparation for a news conference with House Democrats regarding H.R. 1, the For the People Act, on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 3, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Staffers place a sign on a podium in preparation for a news conference with House Democrats regarding H.R. 1, the For the People Act, on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 3, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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. 

If passed, S. 1 would be the greatest forward leap for democracy in generations.

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 greatness 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 rich 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 back 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.

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Filling nearly 900 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 quickly understand many key elements, here’s a concise rundown in 3 groupings. For the People Act will:

Prevent Disenfranchisement & Making Voting Easier

  • Establish two weeks of in-person early voting, including Sundays and during non-business hours;
  • Require states to create nonpartisan commissions for drawing U.S. Congressional districts and create quantifiable criteria for district drawing;
  • 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;
  • End prison gerrymandering by counting people as residents of where they last lived, not where they're incarcerated;
  • End felony disenfranchisement for those on parole, probation, or post-sentence;
  • Make it a crime to intentionally mislead people to prevent them from voting;
  • Allow state colleges and universities to serve register voters;
  • Allow 16 and 17-year olds to pre-register so they'll be on voter rolls upon turning 18;
  • Ban states from purging eligible voters' registration solely for infrequent voting;

Increase Election Integrity

  • Enable voters to track their absentee mail ballots;
  • Provide funding for states to upgrade election security infrastructure;
  • Require paper ballots filled by hand or machines that enable voters to verify their choices;

Shrink the Power of Money Over Candidates & Elections

  • Improve campaign finance disclosure rules;
  • Ban corporations from spending on campaigns unless they have a process to show shareholders approve;
  • 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 would lead to a more diverse candidate pool since access to wealthy donors would no longer be a prerequisite.

The For the People Act does not eliminate the need to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to fix earlier damage to the Voting rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court. Enacting S. 1 also eliminate the need to drive an affirmative right to vote into our Constitution. But the For the People Act would fransform U.S. elections for the better. It will improve security, transparency, voter access, and protect citizens from thebarrage of voter suppression bills encompassing a dizzying array of tactics across 43 state legislatures.

While expanding democracy should be a non-partisan cause, Republican Senators also have signaled their opposition. So passage of 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 yesterday 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. Pass the For the People Act now, while we still can!

Jeff Milchen

Jeff Milchen founded Reclaim Democracy! He is an organizer, speaker and writer helping advance entrepreneurship, grassroots democracy and self-reliant communities. Follow him on Twitter:  @JMilchen

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