The Democrats’ first order of business as they took control of the 116th Congress was introducing H.R. 1, the colossal “For the People Act.” This 571-page behemoth of a bill covering voting rights, campaign finance reform, ethics improvements, and more was a perfect reminder of just how much power the Constitution gives Congress to make elections better in this country and, sadly, of how partisan the question of election reform has become. By beginning with election reform as “H.R. 1,” Democrats signaled their priorities as they took over control of the House of Representatives. The bill now has 221 co-sponsors, all Democrats, including almost every Democrat in the House. It’s disheartening that bipartisan movement on election reform is no longer possible and that few of the significant improvements in the bill stand a chance of becoming law until Democrats have control of the Senate and the presidency. Even then some of its provisions could be blocked by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court. But if and when Democrats ever do return to full power in Washington, H.R. 1 should remain the top priority. Though there is room for some improvements, the “For the People Act” would go an enormous way toward repairing our badly broken democracy.
There’s a lot packed into the introductory version of the bill, much of it a wish list for voting rights advocates and election reformers. The summary put out by the office of Rep. John Sarbanes, one of the lead proponents of the bill, goes on for 22 pages. Among the provisions affecting voting and voting rights are those requiring online voter registration, automatic voter registration, and same-day registration for voting in federal elections; a requirement to use independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional districts in each state; limitations on voter purges; an end to felon disenfranchisement for federal elections; protection against intimidation and false information surrounding elections; improved access to voting by persons with disabilities; a set of improved cybersecurity standards around voting and voting systems, including a requirement that all voting systems produce a paper trail for auditing and checking results; and a ban on a state’s chief election officer engaging in political activities connected to federal offices.
The provisions in H.R. 1 related to campaign finance would expand disclosure rules to cover ads on the internet, a step that is necessary to better track attempted foreign influence over elections; establish a small-donor multiple match public financing system for Congress and a similar fix to the now-moribund presidential public financing system; create a pilot program for the use of campaign finance vouchers in congressional elections, a move I have long supported; enact a new set of rules to make sure that super PACs do not coordinate with candidates; and reconfigure the Federal Election Commission, with an odd number of commissioners and a requirement that at least one of the commissioners not be a Democrat or Republican. The ethics provisions would require the Supreme Court to be bound by an ethics code, strengthen conflict of interest laws, and require presidential and vice presidential candidates to release 10 years of tax returns.