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Revitalizing Democracy

The For the People Act would strengthen democratic systems and make it easier to vote.

January 19, 2021
Samuel Corum/Getty
us capitol

Wednesday at noon, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take the oath at the very spot where, just two weeks ago, an insurrectionary mob egged on by the outgoing president stormed the Capitol to stop the counting of the people’s votes. Not since Abraham Lincoln in 1861 has the ceremony been so fraught. They take office, too, as the country mourns 400,000 dead from the pandemic. We all cheer and pray for them to meet the moment.

At the Brennan Center we believe that the best way to defend democracy is to strengthen democracy. Coming months can usher in a time of reform and change — and, yes, we know that the Senate is evenly divided. But there is wide hunger for a renewal of our systems of self-government.

What goals should the new administration push? Today we’ve published a policy agenda for the administration’s first few months. It includes a number of key changes — from criminal justice reform to ending racial and religious profiling — many of which can be done by executive action.

Most notably, in the drive to protect and improve our democracy, today marked a big moment.

The new Senate leaders have said they will introduce the For the People Act as the first bill in the session. It will be S. 1 as well as H.R. 1. That’s a big deal. It’s significant, too, that the lead sponsors of the bill are incoming Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Jeff Merkley. This responds to twin crises facing our country: the attack on democracy reflected in the assault on the Capitol and the demand for racial justice.

The legislation would be the most significant democracy reform in more than half a century. It incorporates the key measures that are urgently needed. Automatic voter registration to modernize our elections. A national guarantee of free and fair elections without voter suppression. Small donor public financing to curb the corrupting role of big money. An end to partisan gerrymandering. A restoration of ethics throughout government. A commitment to restore the strength of the Voting Rights Act.

Racial justice cannot be fully achieved in this country without a system in which all Americans can advocate for themselves and exercise political power — and that requires voting rights, fair access to the ballot, fair redistricting, and an equitable campaign finance system. The For the People Act creates such a system.

This election showed the passionate commitment to our democracy reflected in the highest voter turnout in over a century, despite the pandemic, voter suppression, and presidential lies. We’ve known for a long time that the democracy we cherish needs renewal and reform.

This is a historic moment. By Wednesday afternoon, we will have a new president and vice president (the first woman — and the first Black and South Asian person) who can effectively lead. We have a lot to recover from, and it may take decades. But Congress is right to start with the For the People Act.