With the latest COVID relief package passed, H.R. 1-the For the People Act-becomes the most salient pending bit of legislation. Our democracy is on borrowed time: Just two months ago America weathered a violent attempt to overthrow a free and fair election. One of our two major political parties has become explicitly seeking to lower the amount of votes cast in future elections. And when we don't take decisive action now to preserve our democracy, we'll lose it. H.R. 1 is supposed to be a bulwark against these anti-democratic threats. It has taken on a partisan tinge, but it is neither a progressive nor partisan bill-it's a pro-democracy bill which should appeal to Americans of all political backgrounds.
So before the next stage of the debate begins in earnest, let's open the hood and check out what's actually in the bill.
Broadly speaking, H.R. 1 covers three major areas: voting and elections, campaign finance, and ethics.
First, it might:
- reduce barriers that keep eligible citizens from registering to vote after which casting their vote;
- set minimum, uniform standards for elections; and
- provide funding to improve the security of our elections.
These reforms possess a long record of bipartisan support and also have already been implemented across many states.
Second, H.R. 1 would increase the transparency of spending on elections and campaign ads and strengthen protections against foreign interference within our campaigns.
Third is ethics: Requiring increased disclosure of lobbying activities, and putting into law ethical guidelines preventing conflicts of great interest by staff, appointees, members of Congress, as well as presidents.
So those are the broad strokes of what the bill aims to do. Here's a bit more detail on the mechanisms it proposes.
Preventing Voter Suppression and Protecting Elections
urrently, each state sets its very own procedures for how its residents register and cast their vote. The For the People Act creates minimum standards which will apply to each state, based on how voters register and cast their ballots, while still empowering states to run their own elections.
Consider voter registration. H.R. 1 takes voter registration reforms that have proven successful across dozens of states over multiple election cycles, and mandates them nationally: It takes states to allow online and same-day voter registration and strengthens protections against efforts to hinder, deceive, or intimidate voters from registering or casting their ballots.
As another example, H.R. 1 restores the right to vote for all felons who have served their sentences and been released from prison. These 5 million currently disenfranchised voters are disproportionately people of color.
There's historic precedent at the office here: kicking blacks from the voter rolls for a criminal conviction was such an effective tool of the Jim Crow South that whenever the Reconstruction Congress readmitted Confederate states towards the Union, it limited which felonies could be used to suspend a person's ability to vote-a limitation which has gone tragically unenforced. A hundred years later, states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee used this same principle to disenfranchise a lot more than 8 percent of their voting-age populations. The For anyone Act would end the seesaws of those state-by-state laws and impose a fair minimum standard.
The For the People Act would also standardize how a voter can be removed from the rolls. Some states remove voters simply because they skipped voting in an election a while back or failed to return a bit of mail. And some campaigns abuse these rules to intentionally push voters off the rolls.
While existing law places some limits around the use of racially discriminatory voter purges, enforcement of these protections is irregular . The act would prohibit using non-forwardable mail that has been returned as a basis for kicking someone off the voting rolls. It also prevents voters from being began the rolls if they fail to vote in an election, as well as people who are not election officials to swear that they have a good faith factual basis when they decide to challenge a citizen's voter registration.
In relation to casting the ballot after a voter is registered, H.R. 1 would expand procedures making it easier to vote. It expands vote-by-mail-which, contrary to many partisan arguments, does not overall boost turnout of one party over another. The balance would also allow curbside voting and pre-paying the postage on mail-in ballots so a citizen doesn't miss out on casting their vote simply because they could not afford a stamp.
The act also seeks to lessen wait times at the polls. Wait times can impose undue hardships on voters-making voting physically hard on the elderly, for instance, or economically a hardship on hourly workers without childcare. A bipartisan commission recommends a 30-minute maximum wait time. But in the United States, not only do many voters wait longer than an hour and a half, lines are longer at polling places in predominantly black neighborhoods-regardless of whether that neighborhood is in a Democratic- or Republican-controlled state.
The For the People Act includes several provisions that will reduce wait times, including setting minimum hours and days for early voting availability, and funding states' recruitment and training of more poll workers so that they can open more polling locations.
H.R. 1 also standardizes vote-by-mail procedures to reduce confusion that results in uncounted ballots. In 2021, many voters were left awaiting absentee ballots that either came past too far or never arrived at all. Those who did get their ballots were often concerned about their ballot arriving back at the board of elections in time to be counted. The act requires states to track and confirm the receipt of absentee ballots and make it easier for people to return ballots through secure dropboxes.
H.R. 1 also forbids any official from overseeing an election in which they, or a family member, really are a candidate. For example: In November 2021, Brian Kemp campaigned being governor of Georgia at the same time that he was overseeing the election as Georgia's secretary of state. He resigned in response to a lawsuit arguing that that refereeing and running within the same election violates the basic constitutional principle that a person may not be the court in their own case. H.R. 1 would formalize this rule.
Perhaps most critically, H.R. 1 would also end the political parties' control over drawing congressional districts-a process which is abused across the country, by both Democrats and Republicans, and which herds millions of Americans into bizarre geographic constructions for that sole purpose of being able to win more races with same number of votes.
Instead, H.R. 1 requires states to make use of non-partisan redistricting commissions to draw these lines. In the face of the Supreme Court's decision in 2021 not to stand in the way of extreme partisan redistricting, this provision would help make a state's representation more proportional to the actual outcome of elections.
The For the People Act includes numerous provisions to increase election security and, just as importantly, bolster public confidence in this security. It creates minimum standards for election equipment vendors ; requires paper ballot receipts to enable audits; directs states to prevent and deter cybersecurity risks; and funds research into improving the security of our election infrastructure.
It would also require federal intelligence agencies to help states share information about potential security threats and also to test voting machines for vulnerabilities. The Act doesn't leave states footing the bill: it provides over $1 billion in funding to help states take these steps to better secure our elections.
All of these actions are well within Congress's authority to manage elections in which a candidate for federal office is around the ballot. In fact, Congress's power here to manage elections is broad and explicitly authorized by multiple constitutional provisions.
First and foremost, Article I's Elections Clause explicitly empowers Congress to regulate the \”times, places and manner\” of federal elections. The final Court has explained that this includes the power to \”provide a complete code for congressional elections.\” Indeed, Congress's power here's \”paramount, and may be exercised at any time, and to any extent which it deems expedient.\”
This is in accessory for Congress's inherent Article I capacity to \”preserve the purity of presidential and vice-presidential elections.\”
Moreover, Congress has the ability under the Enforcement Clause from the Fourteenth Amendment to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee against racial discrimination in voting. The Republican Guarantee Clause, which states \”The Usa shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,\” is another source of Congress’s authority to manage elections. While the contours of each specific authority can be complicated, the overall conclusion isn't: Congress has broad authority to regulate the conduct of elections in which federal officials appear on the ballot.
Transparency, Campaign Finance, and Foreign Interference
.R. 1 features a set of reforms designed to create more transparency around election-related spending and limit foreign interference in elections.
There is restricted space for Congress to reform campaign finance, following a Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United. But within this framework, Congress has significant authority to require more transparency-which is the thrust from the campaign finance reforms in H.R. 1. The act requires more disclosure of who funds online ads, disclosure of spending by government contractors, and creates a shareholder right to learn about a corporation's political expenditures.
It also strengthens protections against foreign interference in elections. It takes campaigns to report attempts by foreigners to unlawfully interfere with elections, tighter limits on campaign donations by foreign nationals, and the requirements for transparency in \”dark money\” groups and ads brings to light an avenue through which foreign funds influence U.S. elections.
Some of those provisions have been the subject of thoughtful critique through the ACLU. But overall, this is a group of reforms designed to shore in the integrity and stability from the U.S. elections system by increasing transparency and limiting foreign interference, while remaining in conjuction with the limitations of Citizens United.
The act also provides matching funds for small-donor contributions to candidates, with strict limitations to make sure that no taxpayer dollars visit these matching funds. Nevertheless there is some evidence that small donors can fuel politicians with increased extreme views, in a world where Congress can't restrict campaign funding, this approach is designed as a hedge against the magnified influence of large donors.
Ethics Reform Over the Entire Federal Government
.R. 1 contains numerous ethics provisions that move beyond elections, and affect all three branches of the authorities. Some apply to presidential candidates too. Taken together they amount to basic steps in reducing corruption and self-dealing through the government.
The act would require the judiciary to create a code of ethics that pertains to all federal judges. It would also strengthen the registration requirements for agents of foreign governments, strengthen lobbying disclosures, making all of these registrations and disclosures more easily available to the public.
And it would significantly strengthen ethics requirements across the executive branch. Examples:
- bolstering recusal requirements for current federal officials;
- preventing federal funds from being spent at businesses owned by the president or cabinet members; and
- requiring presidential appointees to recuse themselves from matters in which the president or their spouse is really a party.
H.R. 1 would also close loopholes that prevent standard federal conflict-of-interest rules from signing up to all officials, by extending relevant requirements to the president and vice president and requiring presidents-elect adopt and enforce ethics rules for his or her transition teams.
It would strengthen the Office of Government Ethics's independence and investigatory authority and wish the sitting president, vice presidents, and major-party presidential candidates to release their tax returns for the prior Ten years, so the people can understand any financial interests their candidates and elected officials may have.
Finally, H.R. 1 imposes stronger ethics requirements on Congress. It would require members of Congress to reimburse taxpayers for employment discrimination claims against those members who have been paid by the Treasury. It would extend some fundamental conflict-of-interest rules to members of the House and Senate, including barring them from trying to advance legislation that is primarily to further their, or their families', financial interests. Additionally, it requires that the many reports that agencies submit to Congress be made available and searchable online. And it would limit those agencies' capability to alter or remove final reports.
Reasonable people might quibble using the wisdom of this or that provision in H.R. 1. It's a big bill. But there is no reasonable way to view it as a partisan power grab or federal takeover in our democracy.
And taken as a whole, we believe it upholds the fundamental components of democracy:
- That eligible voters can participate freely in our elections to choose their representatives.
- That those elections are secure and protected against undue influence and interference.
- And that public officials across the federal government must then abide by some basic ethical codes.
H.R. 1 might not be sufficient to stop the anti-democratic forces now loose in our politics. The Voting Rights Act needs to be reauthorized in light of the Supreme Court's Shelby County decision and also the Protecting Our Democracy Act is required to restore guardrails on executive power.
But H.R. 1 is really a necessary step in protecting our political order since it reflects that the key tension is no longer left versus right, but democratic versus anti-democratic.