Historic Bill to Strengthen Democracy Introduced in Congress
Landmark measure would expand voting rights, curb gerrymandering, bolster ethics rules, and revamp how campaigns are funded
In a major step toward fixing our broken system of elections, House Democratic lawmakers introduced a comprehensive democracy reform bill Thursday, the first day of the 116th Congress.
The bill, which is known as H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, and was sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), would create a more responsive and representative government by making it easier for voters to cast a ballot and harder for lawmakers to gerrymander, by transforming how campaigns are funded to amplify the voices of ordinary Americans, and by bolstering election security and government ethics.
H.R. 1 will “strengthen our democracy and return political power to the people by making it easier, not harder, to vote, ending the dominance of big money in our politics and ensuring that public officials actually serve the public,” said Sarbanes.
The measure, which comes in response to the demands of voters last November, marks the first time in decades that either of the two major parties has put democracy reform at the top of its priority list. And by grouping together issues that Washington has until now treated separately — voting rights, gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, and ethics — the effort helps to define and build momentum for a sweeping democracy agenda.
The key elements of H.R. 1
The Brennan Center has long advocated for, and in some cases helped develop, many of the reforms in the bill — especially automatic voter registration and small-donor public financing, as well as others.
Here are several of the bill’s key provisions:
- Streamlining Voter Registration: H.R. 1 would bring Automatic and Same-Day Voter Registration to voters across the country. Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a transformative reform under which eligible voters are automatically registered when they provide information to the government at the DMV or other government agencies, unless they opt out. Since 2015, 15 states and the District of Columbia have approved AVR, leading to big gains in registration. If adopted nationwide, AVR could add as many as 50 million new voters to the rolls. Same-Day Registration (SDR) allows eligible voters to register at the polls on Election Day, making it less likely that voters will be disenfranchised by last-minute registration problems. It is already offered in 16 states. Combined with AVR, SDR would solve most of the serious registration problems voters experienced in 2016 and 2018.
- Commitment to Restore the Voting Rights Act. H.R. 1 reaffirms Congress’s commitment to restore the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights law that was hobbled by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision. Shelby County enabled states to pass a wave of restrictive voting measures and set the stage for the brazen attempts at voter suppression we saw in 2018. The bill makes clear that Congress is committed to reversing the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision.
- Nationwide Early Voting. H.R. 1 also would ensure that all voters have at least two weeks of early voting, including evening and weekend hours. Early voting, which is offered in most but not all states, boosts turnout for those who may have difficulty getting to the polls — such as working Americans and those providing childcare — and reduces long lines on Election Day. It also provides an important protection for election integrity by allowing officials to spot and address problems well in advance of Election Day. Early voting is extremely popular with voters and helped fuel record-breaking turnout in 2018.
- Citizen-Funded Elections. H.R. 1 would create a small-donor matching system for Congressional races and revamp the matching system for presidential contests. Small-donor matching is an innovative reform that uses public funds to amplify small private donations. The bill would provide qualified presidential and congressional candidates with $6 in public funds for every $1 raised from small donors. A similar program has existed for decades in New York City, where it has diversified the donor pool, helped candidates of modest means run for office, and allowed elected officials to spend more time talking to their constituents instead of dialing for dollars. The bill also increases presidential public financing for general elections.
- Other Important Campaign Finance Reforms. H.R. 1 also includes strong measures to close loopholes in federal campaign disclosure rules, curb foreign funds in U.S. elections, and fix the Federal Election Commission, our nation’s dysfunctional campaign finance regulator.
- Gerrymandering Reform. H.R. 1 would curb extreme partisan gerrymandering by ensuring that states draw congressional districts using independent redistricting commissions whose members represent diverse communities across the state, by establishing fair redistricting criteria, and by mandating greater transparency for the redistricting process.
- Election Security. H.R. 1 also contains a number of provisions to improve election security, including a requirement that states replace paperless voting machines, new grants to help states enhance election security on an ongoing basis and develop better processes for auditing disputed election results, and new security requirements for election system vendors (including an obligation to report cybersecurity breaches).
- Ethics Reform. Finally, H.R. 1 shores up government ethics by strengthening enforcement of ethics rules in the Executive Branch, requiring disclosure of presidential tax returns, tightening restrictions on congressional conflicts of interest, and requiring the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics.
Americans are ready for democracy reform
Last November, voters overwhelmingly voted to strengthen democracy. Leading up to the midterm elections, more than 100 House candidates — many now in the freshman class of representatives sworn in today — called on Congress to make a government and election reform bill the first item on the agenda for the 2019 legislative session. Four states — Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah — passed citizen-led ballot initiatives to reform redistricting. Michigan also voted in favor of enacting automatic and same-day voter registration. And Florida voted overwhelmingly to re-enfranchise around 1.4 million people with past convictions.
A strong majority of Americans also want campaign finance and ethics reform: 77 percent of registered voters said that “reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” was either the “single most” or a “very important” factor in deciding on their vote for Congress, according to a September poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.
H.R.1 would help ensure that all Americans can participate in politics on a more equal footing, transforming our democracy for the better.
View some of the Brennan Center’s groundbreaking research on how to build a democracy that works for everyone.
(Image: Mark Wilson/Getty)