From Daily Kos’ Voting Rights Roundup newsletter. Regardless of your viewpoint, it’s always a good idea to know what a bill actually would change.
• Congress: On Wednesday, House Democrats voted 220-210 to once again pass H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” the most important set of voting and election reforms since the historic Voting Rights Act was adopted in 1965. It also includes a major modification to provisions that would curtail gerrymandering, ensuring that they’ll take effect right away. All Democrats except Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson voted for the bill, while all Republicans voted against it.
H.R. 1 would implement transformative changes to federal elections by (1) removing barriers to expanding access to voting and securing the integrity of the vote; (2) establishing public financing in House elections to level the playing field; and (3) banning congressional gerrymandering by requiring that every state create a nonpartisan redistricting commission subject to nonpartisan redistricting criteria.
These reforms, which House Democrats previously passed in 2019, face a challenging path in the Senate given Democrats’ narrow majority and uncertainty over whether they can overcome a GOP filibuster, but their adoption is critical for preserving American democracy amid unprecedented attack by Republican extremists both in and outside Congress. Senate Democrats have announced that they plan to hold hearings on the bill on March 24, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has committed to holding an eventual floor vote.
Using Congress’ power to regulate Senate and House elections under the Elections Clause and enforce anti-discrimination laws under the 14th Amendment, the bill would:
- Require states to establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions for congressional redistricting;
- Establish nonpartisan redistricting criteria such as a partisan fairness provision that courts can enforce starting immediately no matter what institution draws the maps;
- Establish automatic voter registration at an array of state agencies;
- Establish same-day voter registration;
- Allow online voter registration;
- Allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register so they’ll be on the rolls when they turn 18;
- Allow state colleges and universities to serve as registration agencies;
- Ban states from purging eligible voters’ registration simply for infrequent voting;
- Establish two weeks of in-person early voting, including availability on Sundays and outside of normal business hours;
- Standardize hours within states for opening and closing polling places on Election Day, with exceptions to let cities set longer hours in municipal races;
- Require paper ballots filled by hand or machines that use them as official records and let voters verify their choices;
- Grant funds to states to upgrade their election security infrastructure;
- Provide prepaid postage on mail ballots;
- Allow voters to turn in their mail ballot in person if they choose;
- Allow voters to track their absentee mail ballots;
- End prison gerrymandering by counting prisoners at their last address (rather than where they’re incarcerated) for the purposes of redistricting;
- End felony disenfranchisement for those on parole, probation, or post-sentence, and require such citizens to be supplied with registration forms and informed their voting rights have been restored;
- Provide public financing for House campaigns in the form of matching small donations at a six-for-one rate;
- Expand campaign finance disclosure requirements to mitigate Citizens United;
- Ban corporations from spending for campaign purposes unless the corporation has established a process for determining the political will of its shareholders; and
- Make it a crime to mislead voters with the intention of preventing them from voting.
Importantly, the bill that won approval on the full floor on Wednesday contained critical amendments strengthening its anti-gerrymandering provisions. While the original version would not have required states to use independent commissions and nonpartisan redistricting criteria until 2030, the revised bill would implement them right away. And even if states don’t have enough time to set up new commissions ahead of the 2022 elections, they would still be banned from drawing maps that unduly favor a party, which a court could then enforce.
Ending Republicans’ ability to gerrymander is of the utmost importance after Republicans won the power to redistrict two-to-three times as many congressional districts as Democrats after the 2020 elections. If congressional Democrats don’t act, Republican dominance in redistricting may practically guarantee that Republicans retake the House in 2022 even if Democrats once again win more votes, an outcome that could lead to congressional Republicans more seriously trying to overturn a Democratic victory in the 2024 Electoral College vote than they did in January, when two-thirds of the House caucus voted to overturn Biden’s election.
If this bill becomes law, Republicans would lose that unfettered power to rig the House playing field to their advantage. Instead, reform proponents would gain the ability to challenge unfair maps in court over illegal partisan discrimination, and the bill would eventually require states to create independent redistricting commissions that would take the process out of the hands of self-interested legislators entirely.
Protecting the right to vote is just as paramount when Republican lawmakers across the country have introduced hundreds of bills to adopt new voting restrictions by furthering the lies Donald Trump told about the election that led directly to January’s insurrection at the Capitol. With Republican legislatures likely to pass many of these bills into law—and the Supreme Court’s conservative partisans poised to further undermine existing protections for voting rights—congressional action is an absolute must to protect the ability of voters to cast their ballots.
The most important remaining hurdle, however, is the legislative filibuster: The fate of these reforms will depend on Senate Democrats either abolishing or curtailing it. Progressive activists have relaunched a movement to eliminate the filibuster entirely, while some experts have suggested that Democrats could carve out an exception for voting rights legislation. Either way, Democrats will need to address the filibuster in some fashion, since Senate Republicans have made it clear they will not provide the support necessary to reach a 60-vote supermajority to pass H.R. 1 into law.