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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)