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Amer­ican demo­cracy is in urgent need of repair. State legis­latures nation­wide are push­ing legis­la­tion that would roll back voting rights and place elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion in the hands of partis­ans. Redis­trict­ing is under way in several states, draw­ing congres­sional maps that will be in place for a decade. And campaign spend­ing is increas­ingly domin­ated by contri­bu­tions from the wealth­i­est Amer­ic­ans, margin­al­iz­ing the concerns of every­day citizens.

On Septem­ber 14, a group of Demo­cratic senat­ors led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) intro­duced the Free­dom to Vote Act, a pack­age of reforms that would be the most consequen­tial voting rights and anti-corrup­tion bill passed in more than half a century. The bill addresses the biggest prob­lems facing our demo­cracy, from efforts to restrict access to the ballot, to campaign finance laws, to voter roll purges, to extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing.

The Bren­nan Center’s Wendy Weiser and Daniel I. Weiner discuss the poten­tial impact of this block­buster legis­la­tion, the crises that make it neces­sary, and what stands in the way of it becom­ing the law of the land.

How would you describe the Free­dom to Vote Act in as few words as possible? 

Weiner: The Free­dom to Vote Act is historic legis­la­tion that would be the most consequen­tial voting rights and anti-corrup­tion bill passed in more than half a century. It tackles the biggest prob­lems currently facing our demo­cracy by setting national stand­ards to protect access to the vote, ending partisan gerry­man­der­ing of congres­sional districts, begin­ning to over­haul our broken campaign finance system, and creat­ing new safe­guards against subver­sion of the elect­oral process.

Why do we need the Free­dom to Vote Act?

Weiser: We are facing a multi­fa­ceted crisis in our demo­cracy. There is a concer­ted and highly success­ful push across the coun­try to restrict access to voting, primar­ily target­ing voters of color. We are start­ing a redis­trict­ing process that is going to once again be distor­ted by extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing, much of which also targets communit­ies of color. Our campaign finance system is now increas­ingly domin­ated by a small group of megadonors who are call­ing the shots and over­shad­ow­ing ordin­ary citizens. And we have a new push to empower partisan legis­lat­ors to take over the machinery of elec­tions or the vote count­ing process, coupled with attacks on elec­tion work­ers, threat­en­ing the integ­rity of our elec­tions.

We are facing these crises with fewer legal protec­tions than at any time in more than half a century. The Supreme Court has severely hampered the Voting Rights Act, which used to protect us against discrim­in­at­ory changes in voting laws and prac­tices. The Court has rolled back consti­tu­tional and stat­utory voting protec­tions in other ways, and it has outright prohib­ited federal courts from poli­cing partisan gerry­man­der­ing, no matter how much that offends consti­tu­tional prin­ciples. The Court has also effect­ively gutted our nation’s campaign finance laws.

Where the Court won’t step in, Congress can. The Consti­tu­tion gives Congress broad author­ity to regu­late federal elec­tions. And given how much is at stake, Congress must. If it does­n’t, things will only get worse. We have not seen the end of these efforts to suppress the vote or subvert demo­cratic elec­tions. This abuse of the demo­cratic process will not stop unless real guard­rails are put in place.

There have been multiple bills in the works that would address this crisis. How is the Free­dom to Vote Act differ­ent from the For the People Act, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, and the Protect­ing our Demo­cracy Act?

Weiner: The Free­dom to Vote Act contains the vast major­ity of the most crit­ical provi­sions that were in the For the People Act, although it does also reflect some import­ant conces­sions that were needed to achieve unity among Senate Demo­crats and address concerns raised by Senate Repub­lic­ans and elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors. For example, it stream­lines some of the voting provi­sions that exis­ted in the For the People Act to provide more flex­ib­il­ity for states and elec­tion offi­cials on how to adopt the require­ments. It also scales back the small donor match­ing program and some of the other campaign finance provi­sions that were in the For the People Act, although the provi­sions that remain would still be a huge improve­ment over the status quo. 

Like the For the People Act before it, the Free­dom to Vote Act is comple­ment­ary to the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, which would protect voters from racial discrim­in­a­tion by restor­ing and updat­ing the full protec­tions of the land­mark Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the crown­ing achieve­ments of the civil rights era.

The original VRA required juris­dic­tions with a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting to obtain federal approval, known as preclear­ance, for changes to their voting rules. These provi­sions were neutered by the Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision on the grounds that they were outdated. The John Lewis Act would restore the preclear­ance process and update it to respond to modern condi­tions by creat­ing a new formula to determ­ine which places are covered and singling out certain prac­tices that are known to be asso­ci­ated with discrim­in­a­tion for extra scru­tiny.

The real­ity is that we need to have national stand­ards for access to the vote, but then we also need to restore the historic safe­guards of the Voting Rights Act because Congress can’t anti­cip­ate every type of discrim­in­a­tion. The John Lewis Act is a crit­ical back­stop to prevent racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting that fits together with the Free­dom to Vote Act.

Weiser: The Protect­ing Our Demo­cracy Act is separ­ate legis­la­tion that would shore up urgently needed safe­guards against abuse of power in the exec­ut­ive branch, and protect ethics and the rule of law. All three bills are neces­sary. Given the scope and scale of the current crisis, we need a compre­hens­ive approach to strengthen and secure our demo­cracy.

How does the Free­dom to Vote Act respond to the voter suppres­sion efforts many states are engaged in, such as Texas S.B. 1? 

Weiser: We closely track the state legis­la­tion to restrict access to voting, and believe that the Free­dom to Vote Act would thwart the vast major­ity of the restric­tions in new state laws restrict­ing access to voting.

The Free­dom to Vote Act creates baseline national stand­ards that super­sede more restrict­ive state voting rules. It also strengthens the legal stand­ards for chal­len­ging laws that unduly burden voting rights, making it easier to win lawsuits when rights are viol­ated. It works hand in hand with the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, which provides more tools to push back against discrim­in­at­ory voting changes that restrict access to the ballot box. 

What are the most impact­ful provi­sions in the Free­dom to Vote Act?

Weiner: I would look at that in terms of three crit­ical areas. The first is setting national stand­ards to protect the right to vote. That includes minimum stand­ards for early and mail voting, modern­iz­ing voter regis­tra­tion, and restor­a­tion of the right to vote to formerly incar­cer­ated people.

The second is the elim­in­a­tion of extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing for congres­sional districts, which has been a plague on our repub­lic since the found­ing era but has become far more soph­ist­ic­ated in recent decades, result­ing in durable gerry­manders that insu­late elec­ted offi­cials even from very signi­fic­ant shifts in public opin­ion.

The third is the small donor match­ing system, which would create a path for campaigns for Congress to be funded through contri­bu­tions from every­day Amer­ic­ans. The bill allows states to opt into the program, under which small dona­tions to parti­cip­at­ing congres­sional candid­ates would be matched 6-to-1. This would give candid­ates the option of fund­ing their campaigns through broad-based grass­roots support, expand oppor­tun­it­ies for those who lack wealthy networks to run for office, and help center the concerns of ordin­ary people in the polit­ical process. And it would do all these things through an innov­at­ive fund­ing mech­an­ism that does­n’t rely on taxpayer funds. States that don’t want to opt into this system could use the money for other improve­ments to their elec­tion systems.

Weiser: The Free­dom to Vote Act also innov­ates by coun­ter­ing new tactics of elec­tion subver­sion, attempts to thwart the elect­oral process to under­mine fair elec­tion outcomes.

While vote suppres­sion legis­la­tion is a form of elec­tion subver­sion, across the county we have seen new and more brazen attempts to subvert elec­tion outcomes. These include attempts to empower partis­ans to liter­ally over­turn elec­tion outcomes, to states hand­ing over the machinery of elec­tions or the vote account­ing process to partisan legis­lat­ors and other partisan actors, to the attacks on and intim­id­a­tion of elec­tions offi­cials. The Free­dom to Vote Act directly addresses these threats to the integ­rity of our elec­tion system in a more robust way than we’ve ever seen before.

The bill would also end the scourge of undis­closed large-scale spend­ing in elec­tions, which has grown dramat­ic­ally over the last decade since the Supreme Court’s notori­ous Citizens United decision.

What road­b­locks are stand­ing in the way of this bill becom­ing law?

Weiner: The main one is that under current Senate rules, you need 60 votes to advance legis­la­tion past a fili­buster. Some­thing people don’t tend to under­stand is that the fili­buster is not some­thing that you either have or you don’t have — it has actu­ally been changed hundreds of times in its history and there are a number of ways the fili­buster could be altered again to preserve what some people see as it its delib­er­at­ive bene­fits.

Weiser: Demo­cracy reform must happen, and the path forward will require some adjust­ment to the fili­buster rules if the Free­dom to Vote Act is going to move forward without 10 Repub­lic­ans support­ing it. As Senator Manchin has said, “Inac­tion is not an option.” The Senate cannot let arcane proced­ural rules stand between the coun­try and the legis­la­tion we need to avert this crisis for our demo­cracy.

What can people do to help get this bill over the finish line?

Weiner: One of the endur­ing chal­lenges on this issue is that elec­ted lead­ers have some­times assumed that these topics aren’t “kitchen table” issues that actu­ally matter to voters, so there has been tempta­tion to give them short shrift. So the number one thing you can do is make it known to your elec­ted lead­ers that you care about this. It does not matter if you live in a red, blue, or purple state. All of the reforms in this bill have broad bipar­tisan support. These policies deserve the votes of every member of Congress.

Weiser: We also have an unpre­ced­en­ted oppor­tun­ity, not just to stop the crisis from getting worse, but to turn things around and put the Amer­ican people — not special interests or polit­ical factions — at the center of our demo­cracy.