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Analysis

The For the People Act Is America’s Next Great Civil Rights Bill

Beyond voting reform and protections against discrimination, the bill is a roadmap to an inclusive, diverse, and equitable democracy.

March 1, 2021

This week, the House will vote on the For the People Act (H.R. 1/S.1), the greatest civil rights bill since the civil rights move­ment itself. In a year rich with historic symbol­ism — the first time a woman has held national office, the first time a Confed­er­ate flag was walked through the U.S. Capitol — the bill could not come at a more fitting moment.

If Vice Pres­id­ent Kamala Harris embod­ies an inclus­ive Amer­ican future, the viol­ent insur­rec­tion fueled by lies about voter fraud of Black and brown citizens whis­pers to a not-distant, exclu­sion­ary past. As these two visions of Amer­ica clash, seem­ingly irre­con­cil­able, this bill offers astound­ing hope. It would funda­ment­ally trans­form our demo­cratic insti­tu­tions to bene­fit every­one, but espe­cially those most impacted by our demo­cracy’s histor­ical fail­ings. Paired with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, these reforms are our best oppor­tun­ity in a half century to achieve a truly inclus­ive Amer­ica.

How far we still must go was evid­ent this past elec­tion: follow­ing years of voter suppres­sion efforts, Donald Trump and his allies unapo­lo­get­ic­ally targeted Black and brown votes in their base­less attempt to over­turn the elec­tion result. Extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing — which deprives people of fair repres­ent­a­tion in govern­ment — persisted, often target­ing communit­ies of color. And campaign finance domin­ated by big money main­tained barri­ers for diverse candid­ates and communit­ies seek­ing to have their concerns heard. One major consequence is self-evid­ent: the new Congress remains 77 percent white and 74 percent male in a nation where women are the major­ity and people of color are 40 percent of the popu­la­tion.

The For the People Act offers trans­form­at­ive change to meet these systemic chal­lenges. This begins with protect­ing the fran­chise, which was under siege even before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder. The bill’s prac­tical reforms address the fail­ures we encounter like clock­work every elec­tion — long lines and overly aggress­ive purges, partic­u­larly in minor­ity communit­ies — that cause Amer­ic­ans to ask how this could persist in the 21st century. The bill includes two weeks of early voting so every­one need not stand in line on one lone Tues­day, as well as auto­matic and same-day voter regis­tra­tion so arbit­rary admin­is­trat­ive hurdles and purges don’t determ­ine access to the ballot. It also restores the vote to all formerly incar­cer­ated citizens and allows people who lack photo ID to vote with sworn affi­davits of their iden­tity.

These reforms bene­fit every­one in a well-func­tion­ing demo­cracy, but many specific­ally redress harms against communit­ies most impacted — and targeted by — voting restric­tions. Early voting oppor­tun­it­ies matter for minimum wage work­ers who lack flex­ible schedul­ing on Elec­tion Day: of those earn­ing minimum wage or less, 62 percent are women, many women of color. While regis­tra­tion restric­tions often target minor­ity communit­ies, same-day regis­tra­tion is an anti­dote popu­lar among margin­al­ized communit­ies: a survey of 2012 elec­tion data in North Caro­lina found Black women were 24 percent of registered women voters, but 34 percent had used same-day regis­tra­tion. And voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion altern­at­ives help communit­ies least likely to have ID. Nine­teen percent of Native Amer­ic­ans lack qual­i­fy­ing iden­ti­fic­a­tion, compared to under 12 percent of other possible voters. In Texas, one can vote with a hand­gun license, but not a student ID. This choice is not race-neut­ral: in 2018, over half of Univer­sity of Texas students were minor­it­ies, while over 80 percent of hand­gun licenses went to white Texans.

The For the People Act also imple­ments struc­tural changes address­ing inequit­ies in who can run for office. This will advance a Congress that better reflects Amer­ic­ans’ diverse lived exper­i­ences — and may deliver policy that speaks more directly to those exper­i­ences. Under current campaign finance struc­ture, moneyed elites have an advant­age in running, and fewer than 5 percent of House members cite having ever held a blue-collar job.

Through a new small-donor match­ing system, the bill gives more candid­ates viable means to run without rely­ing on the wealth­i­est contrib­ut­ors, who are over­whelm­ingly white and male. Thanks to this imbal­ance, candid­ates of color, espe­cially women, must work more than their white coun­ter­parts to raise compet­it­ive fund­ing. This bill would match small dona­tions of $200 or less at a six-to-one ratio, funded through a surcharge on corpor­ate lawbreak­ers. This would signi­fic­antly close the fundrais­ing gap for female candid­ates of color, who typic­ally rely most on small donors.

The bill would also help non-wealthy Amer­ic­ans run by confirm­ing that campaign funds can be used for every­day expenses like child­care. This changes the current status quo, where candid­ates can use campaign funds to rent a tuxedo but need special permis­sion from the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion to pay a babysit­ter.

Finally, the bill contains crit­ical congres­sional redis­trict­ing reforms promot­ing fair repres­ent­a­tion. The bill’s ban on partisan gerry­man­der­ing would halt the frequent target­ing of minor­ity communit­ies because of their perceived partisan affil­i­ation, and its reforms main­tain­ing “communit­ies of interest” allow those with shared values to vote as a bloc and elect candid­ates who reflect their interests.

Ulti­mately, the reforms of the For the People Act address an old truth. Our demo­cracy has always been aspir­a­tional — “All men are created equal” meant “men” alone and was writ­ten by a slave­holder. From this world­view, our nation’s original govern­ment, by design, excluded people from demo­cracy based solely on their sex and skin color. Today’s inequit­ies are the inher­it­ance of that choice.

But today also offers a choice: surrender to the crush­ing fail­ures of the past, or choose an optim­istic Amer­ica — where citizens of all kinds have anim­ated a slave­hold­er’s words in Seneca Falls and Selma, at Stone­wall and beyond. The For the People Act will profoundly yet prac­tic­ally forward an inclus­ive demo­cracy, long over­due. Passing it would be a test­a­ment to Amer­ican optim­ism — and a found­a­tion upon which to build our future.