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Clock Ticking for Senate Action on S. 1, the For the People Act

There is no other way to stop the wave of voter suppression legislation being enacted around the country.

June 15, 2021

Next week, if all goes to plan, the Senate will begin to consider the For the People Act (S. 1). The bill is a very big deal. It would represent the best chance — the urgent, timely best chance — to stop the wave of voter suppression in states across the country. It would stop the gerrymandering that will start very soon, as redistricting begins. It will set national standards on vote by mail and early voting. And it would curb the role of big money in politics.

Naturally, a bill this important faces intense opposition. It also lately has drawn criticism from pundits who have the jitters. Isn’t there another bill? It’s so long! How can this pass?

Those with a sense of the legislative process know that the process is just beginning. Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia has expressed opposition to a party-line vote. But he’s sponsored the bill before, and as a former secretary of state, he knows how important these issues are. So do other senators. There will be many twists and turns in coming days and weeks. Recall how many times the Affordable Care Act was declared dead, then suddenly revived, before it was passed into law.

The Democratic caucus remains ardently supportive, and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer continues to declare that “failure is not an option.” This, too, is a big deal. In years past, the party has only tepidly engaged in these issues. Now a passionate group of lawmakers knows this is the best chance to stop a dire threat to the integrity of our election system.  

Time is of the essence. Right now, we are in the midst of the worst assault on voting rights since Jim Crow. Fourteen states have enacted 22 new laws to make voting harder, according to our recent analysis. There are at least 61 bills with restrictive voting provisions moving through 18 state legislatures. Undoubtedly, some of these bills will become law, too.

Only the For the People Act would roll back these laws, creating a national baseline for voting access that mandates states provide voters with same-day and automatic voter registration, early voting, and no-excuse mail voting. These reforms are highly popular with all voters and are modeled off state reforms implemented with bipartisan support. Forty-three states have some form of early voting, and 34 states allow no-excuse mail voting. Forty states allow voters to register online, 20 allow voters to register same-day, and 20 automatically register eligible voters.

There’s another bill, too, that is vital: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The Brennan Center testified to Congress last week in support, showing how Black citizens and other voters of color must stand in line much longer than white voters — hard, quantifiable evidence of why the full strength of the Voting Rights Act must be restored. That bill is moving on a slower path than S. 1, for legal reasons compelled by the Supreme Court. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, the bill will not even be ready to move until autumn.

While the VRAA is critical to protecting voting rights in the long-term, it unfortunately would do nothing to stop the laws rapidly being passed in legislatures now. Its provisions only apply to future laws, not to bad policies already enacted. It only applies to a geographically narrow set of states. (The idea floated by Manchin that it could extend to all 50 states appears doomed by the Supreme Court, which already ruled the Voting Rights Act was applied too broadly.) There is no substitute for a national law setting national standards for federal elections — and that’s S. 1.

Can S. 1 be improved? Already Senate sponsors have also taken heed of good advice from elections officials, introducing amendments to lower costs and increase flexibility for states and localities. These changes will make the bill significantly easier to implement and reduce overall administrative burdens, particularly for smaller jurisdictions. Surely we can expect more improvements as the measure moves forward.

But despite the case of last-minute nerves, there simply is no alternative to acting. This is a real crisis, right now, in the states and in the country, that threatens to undermine our democracy. The bill is well crafted and wildly popular. Democrats should not let the difficulty of the task — or of the need to work with and persuade Sen. Manchin — blind them to the significance of the measure. It would be a vote to be proud of. Next week’s drama on the Senate floor will be the beginning of the hard and broad push for this legislation — not the end.