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Analysis

The For the People Act Would Stop Voter Suppression in Its Tracks

The Senate held a hearing on the landmark bill, which would make it easier for Americans to vote.

March 24, 2021

This is adap­ted from testi­mony before to the Senate Commit­tee on Rules & Admin­is­tra­tion.

The For the People Act (S. 1) would be the most signi­fic­ant demo­cracy reform meas­ure in over half a century. It is the next great civil rights bill and comes in response to the demand for racial justice in our coun­try. It is long over­due and it is urgently needed now.

There are a number of reforms in the legis­la­tion relat­ing to curb­ing the role of money in polit­ics, deal­ing with gerry­man­der­ing, deal­ing with ethics. I want to focus on the sacred right to vote, which is in so many ways at the heart of our demo­cracy and of our under­stand­ing of ourselves as Amer­ic­ans.

In the 2020 elec­tion, despite the pandemic, despite voter suppres­sion, despite the lies, it was the highest voter turnout since 1900. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s own Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity confirmed it was the “most secure elec­tion ever.” This is some­thing we ought to celeb­rate.

Instead, what has happened? We had the Big Lie about the elec­tion being stolen. We had the insur­rec­tion driven by that Big Lie.

And now, in states across the coun­try, we see a wave of legis­lat­ive attempts to curb the vote, the most signi­fic­ant attemp­ted cutback of voting rights since the Jim Crow era. The Bren­nan Center has stud­ied these laws for years and last month found 253 bills in 43 states, seven times the rate of four years ago, and the number is even higher right now.

These bills are being pushed hard. It is only March, and already the governor of Iowa is sign­ing into law signi­fic­ant cutbacks to vote by mail. In Geor­gia, the legis­lature is finish­ing its work on an egre­gious bill. Some of its propos­als would have effect­ively ended no-excuse vote by mail but preserved it for older voters, who tend to be white and Repub­lican. Another would have repealed auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, which had been put in place by the Repub­lican governor. Another proposal would have ended early voting on the Sunday before Elec­tion Day, the day used by Black churches for “souls to the polls.” There was a public outcry that has forced some changes, but there are still tremend­ously harm­ful provi­sions that will be moving through the legis­lature.

These laws affect voters of color, young voters, poor voters. Their intent is often unam­bigu­ous. One of the spon­sors of these bills in Arizona said the purpose was to make sure that only “qual­ity” voters could vote — not that every­one would have the right to vote. That does not strike me as true to our Amer­ican spirit.

The For the People Act deals with this in a very import­ant way. It would stop the new wave of voter suppres­sion, cold. It stops it in its tracks, and Congress has the power, the right, the author­ity — consti­tu­tion­ally and legally — to do this.

This bill would set national stand­ards to ensure that all eligible citizens have the free­dom to vote and the abil­ity to make that ballot count. It would make auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion — already the law in 19 states, Repub­lican and Demo­cratic — the law of the land. It would ensure access to vote by mail and early voting, as well as other meas­ures that have proven popu­lar and effect­ive in recent years and used enthu­si­ast­ic­ally by tens of millions of people. It would restore the right to vote for return­ing citizens after they have been incar­cer­ated, so they can rejoin soci­ety. Every one of these policies has worked at the national, state, or local level.

It would also bolster elec­tion secur­ity and confid­ence in our elec­tions. You are more likely to be struck by light­ning than to commit voter imper­son­a­tion in the United States. We can’t allow the conspir­acy theory about massive miscon­duct to guide policy.

Finally, this legis­la­tion honors the Consti­tu­tion. The Elec­tions Clause gives Congress the power to set a national stand­ard for the “times, places, and manner” of federal elec­tions. The Supreme Court in 2019, in an opin­ion writ­ten by Chief Justice John Roberts, specific­ally poin­ted to this legis­la­tion as a consti­tu­tion­ally sound example of Congress’s power to set elec­tion law.

This is part of the great story of Amer­ican demo­cracy. Will we live up to our best ideals? Will we build a multiracial demo­cracy that really repres­ents all people, or will we allow a drive to take place to turn the clock back to cut back on voting rights? This legis­la­tion would be a signi­fic­ant and long over­due mile­stone for our coun­try and I urge you to enact it.

Wald­man’s full writ­ten testi­mony is here.