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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
voting
PAUL J. RICHARDS

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 Another would have repealed automatic voter registration, which had been put in place by the Republican governor.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.