By Zachary Sorenson | March 7, 2021
Late Wednesday night, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” for the second time in as many years. The nearly 800-page bill includes a sweeping set of voting rights, campaign finance, and good government reforms. And between the Covid-19 pandemic, the violent response to the 2020 election, and the upcoming post-Census apportionment, it couldn’t come at a more pivotal time for voting rights and election access and security.
Even after the remarkable success of the 2020 election amidst unprecedented challenges, legislatures in a majority of states have already introduced legislation this year to limit vote by mail and voter registration opportunities, purge voter rolls, and impose voter ID restrictions. And these new laws are in addition to attempted challenges to the 2020 outcome in both state legislative chambers and the courts.
While federal legislation is of course unable to prevent or mitigate all of these attacks on voting rights and access, H.R. 1 would still make a crucial difference.
What’s in the bill?
H.R. 1 includes a sweeping array of changes to federal election and campaign finance law, as well as ethics and lobbying rules (several of which have previously been introduced as standalone legislation). Perhaps unsurprisingly, H.R. 1’s provisions also cover the full range of the Equal Democracy Project’s issue areas:
The United States is alone among major democracies in putting the onus on citizens to affirmatively register to vote, and as a result, around a fifth of eligible voters have not registered. H.R. 1 would address this shortfall by requiring states to implement automatic voter registration for federal elections and to allow online voter registration as well as same-day registration on Election Day and early voting days.
H.R. 1 also restricts purging registered voters from rolls (an estimated 17 million voters were purged between 2016 and 2018) by prohibiting purges for failure to vote and increasing notice requirements for voters who are removed.
Finally, it guarantees federal voting rights for citizens with prior felony convictions who have completed incarceration (Rep. Cori Bush’s amendment to also restore voting rights to those currently incarcerated was not successful).
Notably, though, H.R. 1 would not restore the full protections under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted in the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision—Democrats have introduced separate legislation to do that—but it does include a findings section reaffirming Congress’s commitment to do so.
Money in Politics
In the aftermath of Citizens United, H.R. 1 targets “dark money” in politics by requiring organizations making significant campaign contributions to disclose their donors and further restricts coordination between campaigns and outside groups. It also seeks to improve transparency of online advertising by requiring online platforms to create public databases of political ad purchases.
More ambitiously, H.R. 1 also proposes a publicly financed small donor matching program for House and Senate candidates who opt in and agree to lower contribution limits and other restrictions. Donations of up to $200 would be matched at a 6:1 rate and would be funded by imposing a surcharge on corporate settlements with the government, not by taxpayers (this is a change from the previous version of the bill).
Finally, H.R. 1 attempts to reduce the gridlock at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by reducing the number of commissioners from six to five (with no more than two from each party to ensure ties can be broken) and giving greater enforcement authority to the Commission’s nonpartisan staff.
H.R. 1 seeks to end gerrymandering by requiring states to set up independent commissions to apportion districts for House elections, with map-drawing procedures designed to ensure fairness and membership requirements to prevent the process from being dominated by any single party.
Electoral Reform & Administration
H.R. 1 would require states to increase access to voting by requiring early voting and no-excuse absentee voting for federal elections. It also seeks to improve election security by requiring paper ballots, designating election systems as critical infrastructure, and authorizing funding to replace equipment and implement risk-limiting audits.
Many of H.R. 1’s provisions described above would help boost civic engagement, making our democracy more inclusive for voters as well as candidates. Provisions like automatic voter registration, early voting, and no-excuse mail voting will help increase turnout by making it easier to vote. And H.R. 1’s new public financing program will not only help address the ways money in politics can negatively affect the process of politics and lawmaking, but also make it easier for candidates to run for Congress without self-funding or fundraising from wealthy donors.
What has changed?
H.R. 1 is largely the same this Congress as the version first passed in 2019, but there are some important updates. First, this version includes provisions addressing emergency planning, mail and early voting, and polling place operations—important updates in the aftermath of a pandemic election, particularly since measures like expanded ballot drop boxes were vigorously contested last year. It also includes protections against foreign interference in elections, as well as a findings section to justify the Bill and its constitutionality.
However, the most important change affecting the current iteration of H.R. 1 is its context, not its substance. First, and most obviously, Democrats now control the White House and both chambers in Congress. Furthermore, the events of the past two years have made many of the reforms it proposes even more pressing.
What comes next?
Now that H.R. 1 has passed the House, it will advance to the Senate, where its future is less clear. Even with a slim majority, Democrats would need to secure 60 votes or abolish the filibuster in order to pass it. Some Senators have even suggested narrowly abolishing the filibuster only for legislation involving voter rights.
If signed into law, H.R. 1 would be the most ambitious federal election and campaign finance reform proposal in decades. Still, it is also important to recognize that H.R. 1 is only part of the approach. As mentioned earlier, H.R. 1 would not restore the Voting Rights Act. And ambitious as its scope may be, its provisions still only apply to elections for federal offices. Elections are still administered by states, and while H.R. 1 would impose some guardrails, it cannot be a panacea to the onslaughts against voting rights and access by state legislatures across the country.
Zachary Sorenson is a 1L at HLS and worked as a legislative assistant to Rep. Adam Schiff for several years prior to law school. Follow him on Twitter: @zwsorenson.