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Analysis

House Passes Historic Democracy Reform Bill

The sweeping For the People Act would expand voting rights, curb gerrymandering, overhaul campaign financing rules, bolster election security, and strengthen ethics rules.

March 8, 2019

In a historic step toward fixing the U.S. elec­tions system, the House of Repres­ent­at­ives voted 234–193 in favor of a sweep­ing demo­cracy reform bill on Friday. The meas­ure, known as H.R. 1 or the For the People Act of 2019, was intro­duced by House Demo­crats in Janu­ary and marks the first time in decades Congress has made compre­hens­ive demo­cracy reform a cent­ral prior­ity.

The Bren­nan Center has long advoc­ated for, and in some cases helped develop, many of the reforms outlined in H.R. 1—in­clud­ing auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion and small-donor public finan­cing, among others. Addi­tional key provi­sions in H.R. 1 include a commit­ment to fully restor­ing the Voting Rights Act, redis­trict­ing reforms, nation­wide early voting, and ethics.

“We’ve reached a tipping point in the fight to expand voting rights and repair our polit­ical system,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the demo­cracy program at the Bren­nan Center. “H.R. 1 is a direct response to the demands from voters last Novem­ber for a demo­cracy that works for all Amer­ic­ans. It includes the key reforms needed to revital­ize our demo­cracy—re­forms that are popu­lar and proven to work.”

In recent weeks, Weiser and the Bren­nan Center’s Rudy Mehrb­ani have test­i­fied in support of H.R. 1 in hear­ings before the Commit­tee on House Admin­is­tra­tion and the House Over­sight and Reform Commit­tee, respect­ively.

The passage of H.R. 1 comes after an elec­tion season in which many new members of Congress won their seats after pledging to pass “bold” and “sweep­ing” demo­cracy reforms. U.S. voters also approved a record number of demo­cracy-related meas­ures on issues such as voting rights, redis­trict­ing, and money in polit­ics.  Five states—­Col­or­ado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, 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 restore voting rights to almost 1.5 million people with past crim­inal convic­tions. 

In addi­tion, state lawmakers across the coun­try, includ­ing in New Hamp­shire and Virginia, have advanced pro-demo­cracy meas­ures since the Novem­ber 2018 midterm elec­tions. The Bren­nan Center has also been involved in demo­cracy reform in New York State, includ­ing the push for small donor public finan­cing. Lawmakers in New York are poised to become the first in the coun­try to pass a statewide small donor match­ing system designed to amplify the voice of voters over power­ful special interests.

The vast major­ity of registered U.S. voters support campaign finance and ethics reform: 77 percent of those surveyed 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 2018 poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.

H.R. 1 is now set for consid­er­a­tion by the Repub­lican-led Senate. GOP Senate Major­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell has consist­ently criti­cized the legis­la­tion, attempt­ing to char­ac­ter­ize it as a “Demo­cratic power grab.”

“H.R. 1 deserves a vote in the Senate,” said Daniel I. Weiner, senior coun­sel for the Bren­nan Center’s demo­cracy program. “Leader McCon­nell has no excuse to keep the full Senate from weigh­ing in. Over the long-term, there will be a polit­ical price to obstruct­ing a demo­cratic over­haul the Amer­ican people so clearly want.”

But regard­less of what happens next in this Congress, H.R. 1 has already pushed demo­cracy reform to the center of the public agenda—which will help shape the 2020 elec­tion campaigns and set the stage for future passage.

(Image: BCJ/Robin Olimb/Getty)