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Brennan Center Urges Congress to Pass the For the People Act

The challenges of the 2020 election sent a clear message: Congress must step in to repair and safeguard American democracy.

Dear Members of Congress:

On behalf of the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, we urge you to vote for the For the People Act (H.R.1 and S.1), and against any last-minute efforts to weaken the bill.

Since its initial passage by the House in 2019, the need for this legis­la­tion has only become more appar­ent. The For the People Act responds to twin crises that continue to face our coun­try: the attack on demo­cracy epitom­ized by the Janu­ary 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, and the urgent demand for racial justice. It is based on the key insight that the best way to defend demo­cracy is to strengthen it. If enacted, it would be the most signi­fic­ant voting rights and demo­cracy reform since the civil rights move­ment.

The 2020 elec­tion featured historic levels of voter mobil­iz­a­tion — the highest in more than half a century — despite a deadly pandemic. But there were also unpre­ced­en­ted efforts to thwart the elect­oral process, under­mine faith in elec­tion integ­rity, and disen­fran­chise voters, primar­ily in communit­ies of color. And in a series of decisions lead­ing up to the elec­tion, the Supreme Court made clear that it would not allow the federal courts to inter­vene to protect voters. This past elec­tion was also the most expens­ive on record, with ordin­ary Amer­ic­ans who made small dona­tions vastly outspent by big money interests, includ­ing super PACs and dark money groups. And with the 2021 redis­trict­ing cycle approach­ing, extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing again threatens to give lopsided advant­ages to the polit­ical party that controls each state’s draw­ing of maps, advant­ages that could last for most of the decade given the increas­ing soph­ist­ic­a­tion of gerry­man­der­ing tech­niques.

While these prob­lems were more extreme this cycle, they are hardly new. For more than a decade, efforts to restrict voting access have gained steam, wealthy donors have main­tained outsized sway over policy, gerry­man­der­ing has become more brazen, and guard­rails against discrim­in­a­tion, corrup­tion, and manip­u­la­tion of rules for personal gain have been cast aside or eroded. The Covid-19 pandemic, whose effects in terms of both health and economic well-being have fallen dispro­por­tion­ately on communit­ies of color, under­scores the urgent need for a demo­cracy that serves all Amer­ic­ans.

Congress has the power to fix these prob­lems, and the lead­er­ship of both cham­bers has commit­ted to doing so as a top prior­ity. Now is the time to make good on this commit­ment and pass the For the People Act.

Among the most import­ant provi­sions in this historic legis­la­tion are:

Modern­iz­ing Voter Regis­tra­tion. The For the People Act would make auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, which 19 states and the District of Columbia have already approved, the national stand­ard. Auto­matic regis­tra­tion is a trans­form­at­ive reform under which eligible voters are auto­mat­ic­ally registered when they provide inform­a­tion to the govern­ment at the DMV or other agen­cies, unless they opt out. It could add as many as 50 million new eligible voters to the rolls. It improves the integ­rity of the rolls and saves money. H.R.1 would also require online and same-day voter regis­tra­tion and curtail illegal purges of the voter rolls. Taken together, these reforms would modern­ize our system and solve almost all of the regis­tra­tion prob­lems that routinely plague elec­tions and keep millions of Amer­ic­ans from voting. No change is more import­ant for giving all eligible voters the chance to cast their ballots.

Small-Donor Public Finan­cing. The For the People Act would create a volun­tary program to amplify the voices of small, private donors, using public funds to match contri­bu­tions of up to $200 6-to-1. It would also revamp and expand to the general elec­tion a similar program for pres­id­en­tial primar­ies that for three decades was used by every major contender. These provi­sions are self-fund­ing — they do not use any taxpayer funds. No reforms would do more to rectify the worst effects of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. In New York City, where small donor public finan­cing has been in place for decades, it has diver­si­fied the donor pool, helped candid­ates of modest means and from diverse back­grounds run for office, and allowed elec­ted offi­cials to spend more time talk­ing to their constitu­ents instead of fundrais­ing from big donors. If enacted for congres­sional races, small donor match­ing would also signi­fic­antly narrow the fundrais­ing gap for candid­ates of color (who typic­ally must work harder to raise the same amounts as their white peers), espe­cially women of color.

Restor­ing the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The For the People Act would affirm Congress’s commit­ment to restore the full protec­tions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), the land­mark civil rights law the Supreme Court hobbled in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. The absence of these protec­tions has ushered in a wave of restrict­ive voting meas­ures and allowed discrim­in­at­ory changes to voting rules to stay in effect for years. Full restor­a­tion of the VRA is accom­plished by the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, which Congress should again pass as soon as it has amassed a suffi­cient legis­lat­ive record.

Voting Rights Restor­a­tion. The For the People Act would restore federal voting rights to citizens with past crim­inal convic­tions living in our communit­ies — strength­en­ing those communit­ies, offer­ing a second chance to those who have served their time, and remov­ing the stain of a policy born out of Jim Crow. It offers a clear and bright-line rule that will reduce confu­sion for both citizens and elec­tion offi­cials alike.

Redis­trict­ing Reform. The For the People Act would create strong uniform rules for congres­sional redis­trict­ing, includ­ing strengthened protec­tions for communit­ies of color and a stat­utory ban on partisan gerry­man­der­ing. It would also ensure greater trans­par­ency in the redis­trict­ing process and add enhanced judi­cial remed­ies to ensure that discrim­in­at­ory maps can quickly be chal­lenged in court and fixed. Absent these meas­ures, extreme gerry­man­der­ing and discrim­in­a­tion against communit­ies of color will continue to run rife in the upcom­ing redis­trict­ing cycle.

Nation­wide Early Voting. The For the People Act would ensure that all states have at least two weeks of early voting to boost turnout among work­ing Amer­ic­ans, reduce long lines, and help offi­cials identify and address prob­lems before Elec­tion Day. More than 100 million Amer­ic­ans voted early in 2020, a substan­tial increase over previ­ous years, which addi­tion­ally helped to ensure a safe and secure elec­tion in the pandemic context.

Shor­ing up Campaign Finance Rules. The For the People Act would extend common-sense trans­par­ency rules to online polit­ical advert­ising and close other loop­holes, tighten rules inten­ded to keep super PACs and dark money groups inde­pend­ent of candid­ates, and over­haul the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion to prevent dead­locks and enforce campaign finance laws more effect­ively.

Elec­tion Secur­ity. The For the People Act would bring needed improve­ments to elec­tion secur­ity by requir­ing states to replace paper­less elec­tronic voting machines, promot­ing risk-limit­ing audits, creat­ing grants to help states enhance elec­tion secur­ity on an ongo­ing basis, and ensur­ing elec­tion system vendors meet secur­ity require­ments, among other changes.

Govern­ment Ethics. Finally, the For the People Act would bolster enforce­ment of exec­ut­ive branch ethics rules, slow the revolving door between the private and public sectors, require disclos­ure of pres­id­en­tial tax returns, tighten restric­tions on congres­sional conflicts of interest, and require a code of ethics for the Supreme Court, among other things.

A more detailed explan­a­tion of the Bren­nan Center’s support for the reforms in the For the People Act is set forth in a recent Bren­nan Center white paper. That paper and a vari­ety of other resources, includ­ing a section-by-section guide to the bill as intro­duced in the House in Janu­ary 2021, can be found on our website.

The chal­lenges of the 2020 elec­tion — culmin­at­ing in the assault on our demo­cracy on Janu­ary 6, 2021 — as well as ongo­ing state-level attacks on voting have sent a clear message: Congress must step in to repair and safe­guard Amer­ican demo­cracy. These ambi­tious but neces­sary reforms are key to our nation’s abil­ity to address many other cent­ral prior­it­ies, from repair­ing the damage of the coronavirus pandemic to the renewed push for true racial justice. The For the People Act is historic legis­la­tion. We strongly support the entire pack­age and urge you to pass it.

Michael Wald­man, Pres­id­ent
Wendy R. Weiser, Vice Pres­id­ent for Demo­cracy
Daniel I. Weiner, Deputy Director, Elec­tion Reform

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