The House of Representatives passed a landmark bill on voting rights, elections, campaign finance and ethics reform by a vote of 220-210 on Wednesday.
The For the People Act, congressional Democrats’ top legislative priority, passed with 220 Democrats in support and one Democrat (Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi) and 209 Republicans in opposition. (Two Republicans did not vote.) This encapsulates a major contrast between the nation’s two major political parties: One is pushing to expand access to the ballot, the other is trying to restrict it.
The Republican Party is still led by former President Donald Trump, who just two months ago sought to overturn a free and fair election by invalidating votes in majority-Black cities. More than half of the House Republican caucus backed him. This led directly to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. And now Republicans at the state level are pushing a new wave of voting rights restrictions based on Trump’s election fraud lies, including in Georgia, where Republicans just lost the presidential race and two Senate seats.
Democrats see the march of these voter restrictions as both a direct attack on the principle of voting rights and the prospect of a pluralistic multiracial democracy and a direct threat to their own party’s ability to win majorities. They’re backing the most expansive voting rights legislation in generations in order to stop that attack.
“This is existential,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), the freshman representative to House Democratic Party leadership. “Our democracy is under assault. And if we don’t pass this legislation now, my prediction is we will not have a democracy over the next decade.”
If enacted into law, the For The People Act would nullify this latest GOP wave of voter restrictions at the state level. To do so, the bill mandates that states provide no-excuse absentee voting, at least 15 days of early voting and provisional ballots; requires states to automatically register voters when they interact with a state or local government agency (unless they choose to opt out), while also providing the option of online and same-day registration; limits states from implementing mass voter roll purges and voter identification laws; and restores voting rights to people convicted of felonies upon release from prison in states that ban them from voting. These are just a few of the major provisions in the bill.
“At a time when Americans from across the political spectrum are demanding real change and accountability from their elected officials, it’s more important than ever before to deliver on the promise of H.R. 1 and restore faith in our democracy,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the lead sponsor of the House bill, said in a statement. “We have no time to waste.”
Before the vote, Republicans echoed Trump’s election fraud lies, claiming that the For The People Act would enact certain measures used by states in the 2020 election that Trump falsely asserted led to “fraud that has never been seen like this before.” They claimed that expanding absentee voting and limiting voter restrictions would further weaken trust in elections, even after the majority of them had backed Trump’s lies that weakened public trust to further Trump’s personal interests.
Some Republicans lied about the contents of the bill, claiming it would let 16-year-olds and undocumented immigrants register to vote. Others ― like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who had effectively voted to overturn the 2020 election on Jan. 6 ― linked the bill to the Republican Party’s newfound organizing principle in opposition to so-called “cancel culture.”
“First, they outlaw Dr. Seuss and now they want to tell us what to say,” McCarthy said in opposition to the bill’s reorganization of the Federal Election Commission to give it a majority of commissioners from one party.
The bill will now head to the Senate, where it is likely to be filibustered by Republicans opposed to its voting rights, campaign finance and ethics reforms.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called the bill a “power grab” and “socialism.” When it first passed the House in 2019, McConnell blocked any consideration in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. But with the Senate now under Democratic control, the push for the bill will set up the first of many tests for Senate Democrats as they debate whether to change the chamber’s filibuster rules or watch the GOP stall President Joe Biden’s agenda.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the two lead Senate sponsors of the bill, told HuffPost that she plans to “make this our number one priority for legislation.” She plans to hold the first hearing on the bill in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which she chairs, on March 24 after the Senate finishes work on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
Both Klobuchar and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the bill’s other lead sponsor, back any range of changes to Senate rules to get this bill to Biden’s desk ― up to and including eliminating the filibuster.
“Let’s see how many things they keep blocking,” Klobuchar said about the fate of the filibuster. “You can only use reconciliation so far.”
“Our democracy is under assault. And if we don’t pass this legislation now, my prediction is we will not have a democracy over the next decade.”
Beyond its voting rights section, the For The People Act contains sweeping changes to the nation’s campaign finance laws, bans on partisan gerrymandering, and new ethics requirements for the executive branch and federal judiciary.
The campaign finance provisions include a ban on undisclosed “dark money,” further restrictions on super PAC coordination, the restructuring of the FEC, mandated disclosure of online advertising, and creation of an optional public financing system for congressional campaigns.
The proposed public financing system stems from a bill introduced in prior Congresses by Sarbanes. It would provide $6 in public funds for every $1 raised in small contributions (those up to $200) for participating candidates. The public funds would come from a new small fee added to some fines and settlement payments levied on corporations by the Treasury Department.
Even though the public funding would come from fees on fines, Republicans last year targeted attack ads at some swing-state House Democrats who’d voted for the bill in 2019, accusing them of voting to use taxpayer money to fund political campaigns. The discomfort of those 2020 attack ads led a group of moderate Democrats to add an amendment to the bill on Tuesday restating that no taxpayer funds would be used to pay for the public financing system. This amendment did no more than restate the bill’s existing provisions.
A more significant change came after members of the Congressional Black Caucus objected to the bill’s anti-gerrymandering provisions. The bill initially mandated that states draw their House district boundaries through independent, nonpartisan redistricting panels in this year’s redistricting process. The CBC amendment pushes the mandated use of such independent panels to the 2030-31 redistricting cycle while still imposing new rules that would severely restrict partisan gerrymandering during the current process.
The fate of the bill now lies with the Senate. Despite an increasing push to eliminate or change the filibuster rules, centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have stated, in no uncertain terms, their opposition to doing so.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) intends to put the bill on the floor and force Republicans to filibuster it. Last year, at the funeral of civil rights hero and Georgia congressman John Lewis, former President Barack Obama called for Democrats to end the filibuster in order to pass a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. Lewis just so happens to have been the author of the major voting rights section in the For The People Act.
The success of the Democratic Party’s agenda now hinges on whether they let their efforts be hamstrung by the filibuster rules or find a way to enact laws again. The For The People Act will be just the first such test.