Perhaps you wouldn’t know it with all the turmoil surrounding Donald Trump’s government shutdown, but congressional Democrats are quietly going on the offensive to strengthen our democracy.
On the third day of the new Congress, Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland and Speaker Pelosi introduced H.R.1, the “For the People Act of 2019”, “to expand Americans' access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and for other purposes.”
The bill, which has already gathered 226 House co-sponsors and has been referred to the multiple committees with jurisdiction over its provisions, is designed to address the kind of things that folks have been saying “there ought to be a law” about for quite a few years.
Here are some examples regarding voting and elections:
- Automatic Voter Registration: A broad group of state and federal agencies, including motor vehicles commissions, public high schools and colleges receiving government funds, the Social Security Administration and the VA, will be required to provide state election officials with first time and updated information to register all eligible citizens for federal elections. Prospective voters may “opt out” of registering to vote, but are otherwise automatically registered.
- Federal Election Day Holiday: A day on which all federal government offices would close to permit employees the full day to vote. This provision would support private employers giving their workers the day off in keeping with customary practices on other federal holidays.
- Early Voting: The bill proposes a national requirement for at least 15 days of early voting in each federal election.
- Ceasing voter registration purges by states.
- Voter ID Laws: To counteract restrictive state voter ID laws, individuals may sign a written statement, sworn to under penalty of perjury, attesting to the individual’s identity, in lieu of documents.
- Gerrymandering: The bill seeks to eliminate state gerrymandering by means of a national system of independent state redistricting commissions.
- Mandating that the chief election administration official in any state can’t take an active part in a political campaign in an election that official is supervising. This provision would seem to prevent a situation that occurred last fall when the Republican candidate for governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, refused to step down from his role as secretary of state during the election; Kemp was credibly accused of large scale voter suppression to hold down the African American turnout for Democrat Stacey Abrams.
- Paper Ballots: A requirement that each federal election use an “individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballot” which is retained for 22 months to insure accurate recounts where needed. Another provision would authorize disbursement of $1 billion of federal funds immediately to the states to assist them in converting their voting systems and an additional $175 million in each of the next four federal election cycles.
- Restoration of Voting Rights for the Previously Incarcerated: The bill would require the restoration of federal voting rights to all with felony criminal convictions, at the end of their incarceration, and to anyone convicted of misdemeanors.
The electoral and voting provisions in H.R. 1 build on and amend the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Importantly, it also reaffirms Congress’s commitment to restoring full enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”), noting the pernicious effect of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which removed key protections for minority voters. (A separate bill focusing on restoration of the VRA’s enforcement is reportedly also in the works.)
These provisions focus on counteracting the most common forms of voter suppression and disenfranchisement, while they also aim to build confidence in the integrity of vote counts and strike back at potential vote hacking and related schemes suggested by the recent Russian interference in our 2016 presidential election.
Notably, not a single Republican in the House has yet signaled support for H.R. 1, which is perhaps not surprising, given the current state of the Republican Party under Trump. But the bill’s sponsors suggest that as the separate measures included in this omnibus act are refined and voted, some Republican legislators will see the wisdom of coming out on the side of expanding democracy instead of running for reelection in 2020 as a “No” voter. After all, certain elements of this package, like restoring voting rights for ex-offenders and non-partisan redistricting, have proven to be popular with independent voters and many Republican voters in recent state referenda.
Invariably, some will question why Democrats are making a big push now on the For the People Act, since Republicans still control both the White House and the Senate. There is a very well thought out and convincing response to this question in the recently updated Indivisible Guide: “Indivisible on Offense”:
“Messaging bills demonstrate what Democrats stand for. …The value of passing messaging bills is that they: 1. Present an alternative vision for the country…2. Get Republicans on the record on key issues….3. Lock Members of Congress into a position. By voting in favor of a messaging bill that they know won’t become law, Members of Congress are significantly more likely to vote for the same bill later when there is a real chance of getting it signed into law…4. Settle policy debates and define the party’s agenda. If you want legislation enacted in 2021, with unified progressive control of Congress, you need messaging bills in 2019 or 2020.”
The For the People Act of 2019 is a great example of the kind of issue of democracy which should be a key focus for our country, and for Democrats, at this political moment. I submit that actively confronting and moving ahead on such key issues of policy is a great deal more fruitful than getting pulled into the mounting media speculation about the many able candidates for president now coming forward. If the grass roots can engage with great policies, we won’t lack for great champions.
Thanks for looking at my first blog post for BlueWaveNJ. I am anticipating that future posts will cover, most immediately, the other two key elements of the For the People Act – reducing the impact of big money in federal elections, and upping the requirements for ethics in the federal government, as well as discussing key details on some of the related issues of elections and voting.
Mark Lurinsky has been an activist on matters of public policy since 1968. He is currently a member of BlueWaveNJ’s Electoral Reform Working Group and is a co-chair of the Healthcare Committee.