The following Op-Ed excerpt from the Brennan Center for Justice submitted by Hazel Thomas
SUMMARY: Bold legislation introduced in the House (H.R. 1) and Senate (S. 1) would ensure that our democracy works for everyone.
American democracy urgently needs repair. We now have a historic opportunity to bring about transformative change. In both houses of Congress, the For the People Act — H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate — was designated as the first bill, a top priority this session.
This historic legislation responds to twin crises facing our country: the ongoing attack on democracy — reflected in the assault on the Capitol on January 6 and the subsequent flood of vote suppression bills across the country — and the urgent demand for racial justice. It is based on the key insight that the best way to defend democracy is to strengthen democracy. If enacted, it would be the most significant voting rights and democracy reform in more than half a century.
The 2020 election, like the 2018 midterms, featured historic levels of voter turnout — the highest in over a century, even in the face of a deadly pandemic. But there were also unprecedented efforts to thwart the electoral process and disenfranchise voters, primarily in Black and brown communities, based on lies about “voter fraud.” Those efforts continue through restrictive voting bills in states across the country. Extreme partisan gerrymandering continued to distort far too many races for the House — a plot that is poised to be repeated in the upcoming redistricting cycle unless Congress steps in to prevent it. And despite increased engagement by small campaign donors last year, the most expensive campaigns in American history were still largely bankrolled by a small coterie of individual megadonors and entrenched interests, many of whom were able to keep their identities secret from voters.
These problems were more extreme this cycle, but they are certainly not new. For decades, citizens’ voices have been silenced through voter suppression, gerrymandering, and deceptive tactics. Wealthy campaign donors maintain outsized sway over policy. And the guardrails against discrimination, corruption, and manipulation of the system for personal gain have all been cast aside or eroded. The virulent coronavirus, whose worst effects in terms of both health and the economy have fallen disproportionately on communities of color, underscores the urgent need for a functioning democracy that serves all the people.
The current assault on voting rights across the country underscores the urgency of reform. Even though our democratic institutions survived an attempt to overturn the result of the 2020 election, unscrupulous state legislators have seized on the disinformation that fueled this attempt to introduce an alarming number of regressive bills aimed at restricting access to the ballot, including by sharply restricting access to mail ballots, cutting back on early voting, and slashing voter registration opportunities. To date, more than 250 bills to restrict voting access have been proposed in 43 states, more than seven times the number introduced by this same time last year. These measures target and will disproportionately harm voters of color, young voters, and voters with disabilities. In Georgia, for instance, a recent Brennan Center analysis found that proposed bills to cut Sunday early voting and mail-voting access would burden Black voters most. footnote1_5hw0z9j1
But here is the good news: we know what we need to do to address these problems and strengthen American democracy. It starts with passing the For the People Act. The Act incorporates key measures that are urgently needed, including automatic voter registration and other steps to modernize our elections; a national guarantee of free and fair elections without voter suppression, coupled with a commitment to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act; small donor public financing to empower ordinary Americans instead of big donors (at no cost to taxpayers) and other critical campaign finance reforms; an end to partisan gerrymandering; and a much-needed overhaul of federal ethics rules. Critically, the Act would thwart virtually every vote suppression bill currently pending in the states.
These reforms respond directly to Americans’ desire for real solutions that ensure that each of us can have a voice in the decisions that govern our lives, as evidenced by their passage in many states, often by lopsided bipartisan margins. They are especially critical for communities of color. Racial justice cannot be fully achieved without a system in which all Americans have the means to advocate for themselves and exercise political power.
As President Biden remarked in his inaugural address: democracy is precious, but democracy is also fragile. The 2020 election revealed a passionate commitment to democracy on the part of tens of millions of Americans who braved a deadly pandemic, voter suppression, and a concerted campaign of presidential lies to make their voices heard. On March 3, the House of Representatives honored that commitment by passing the Act in its entirety. Now, the Senate and the president must also fulfill their promise to secure representative democracy in America now and for future generations.
The right to vote is at the heart of effective self-government. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison laid down a standard for our democracy: “Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.” footnote1_xrpdsgu2 For over two centuries, we have worked to live up to that ideal, but have consistently fallen short. Many have struggled, and continue to struggle, for the franchise. The For the People Act would expand and protect this most fundamental right and bring voting into the 21st century.
- Modernize Voter Registration
- Restore the Voting Rights Act
- Restore Voting Rights to People with Prior Convictions
- Strengthen Mail Voting Systems
- Institute Nationwide Early Voting
- Preventing Unreasonable Wait Times at the Polls
- Protect Against Deceptive Practices