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Analysis

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. 

Read about the Bren­nan Center’s research on how to build a demo­cracy that works for every­one.

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 hoursEarly 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.
  • 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)