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Equity for the People

Summary: The For the People Act is a critical step toward achieving an inclusive democracy, long promised, but not yet delivered.

Civil rights protests past and present
Jessica Eckert/Stephen F. Somerstein/Drew Angerer/Getty/Library of Congress

Today, we are at an inflec­tion point. The 2020 elec­tion produced the largest number of voters in U.S. history, and the highest turnout in over a century. foot­note1_6do17y4 1 Domen­ico Montanaro, “Pres­id­ent-Elect Joe Biden Hits 80 Million Votes In Year Of Record Turnout,” NPR, Novem­ber 25, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/11/25/937248659/pres­id­ent-elect-biden-hits-80-million-votes-in-year-of-record-turnout; Kevin Schaul, Kate Rabinow­itz, and Ted Mellnik, “2020 Turnout is the Highest in Over a Century,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Novem­ber 5, 2020, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/graph­ics/2020/elec­tions/voter-turnout/. At the same time, it produced one of the largest-scale attempts to disen­fran­chise Amer­ic­ans, espe­cially voters of color, in at least half a century. foot­note2_mxj7bol 2 See, e.g., Jacob Sham­sian, “Trump’s Lawsuits Are Trying to Throw Out Votes in Counties with More Black People — Even When They Played by the Same Elec­tion Rules as Predom­in­antly White Ones,” Busi­ness Insider, Decem­ber 14, 2020, https://www.busi­ness­in­sider.com/trump-elec­tion-lawsuits-target-black-voters-2020–12. On Janu­ary 6, 2021, insur­rec­tion­ists viol­ently stormed the United States Capitol, lead­ing to five deaths. This attemp­ted coup was driven by the racially tinged Big Lie of wide­spread voter fraud, inten­ded to cast doubt on the valid­ity of many votes cast by voters of color in order to falsely allege the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion was stolen. While the claim is base­less, it contin­ues to be used as a justi­fic­a­tion for the intro­duc­tion of restrict­ive state-level voting laws in unpre­ced­en­ted numbers — 389 restrict­ive bills in 48 states as of May 2021 — many of which target voters of color. foot­note3_zgkbyiy 3 Bren­nan Center for Justice, “Voting Laws Roundup: May 2021,” May 28, 2021, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-may-2021; Kevin Morris, “Geor­gi­a’s Proposed Voting Restric­tions Will Harm Black Voters Most,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, March 6, 2021, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/geor­gias-proposed-voting-restric­tions-will-harm-black-voters-most.

That assault on demo­cratic parti­cip­a­tion comes at a time of dramatic demo­graphic change and social and polit­ical trans­form­a­tion. The United States is diver­si­fy­ing and increas­ingly recog­niz­ing diversity as a social good. Amer­ic­ans are more polit­ic­ally engaged than ever, and the newest eligible voters, dubbed Gener­a­tion Z, are 48 percent nonwhite, making them the most diverse gener­a­tion the nation has ever seen. foot­note4_2mz7j09 4 Richard Fry and Kim Parker, “Early Bench­marks Show ‘Post-Millen­ni­als’ on Track to Be Most Diverse, Best-Educated Gener­a­tion Yet,” Pew Research Center, Novem­ber 15, 2018, https://www.pewre­search.org/social-trends/2018/11/15/early-bench­marks-show-post-millen­ni­als-on-track-to-be-most-diverse-best-educated-gener­a­tion-yet/. These young Amer­ic­ans are coming of age in a time where power looks differ­ent: for the first time ever, the vice pres­id­ency is held by a woman, and a woman of color. For every gener­a­tion after this, power has a new status quo.

But the attacks on Congress, voting rights, and the 2020 elec­tion are a reminder that while the future is coming, our history contin­ues to shape our present. Even while Vice Pres­id­ent Kamala Harris repres­ents the possib­il­ity of a more inclus­ive Amer­ican lead­er­ship, she was born into an Amer­ica where, in many places, she could not vote. The Voting Rights Act, which finally guar­an­teed the right to vote to people of color, did not become law until 1965, the year after she was born. One-third of Amer­ic­ans alive today were alive during Jim Crow. foot­note5_bodqp9c 5 Philip Bump, “Nearly a Third of Amer­ic­ans Were Alive During Jim Crow,” Wash­ing­ton Post, August 19, 2019, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/polit­ics/2019/08/19/nearly-third-amer­ic­ans-were-alive-during-jim-crow/. Under Jim Crow, white­ness was requis­ite to power, but it must be noted that although Jim Crow’s power struc­ture defin­i­tion­ally meant all the power­ful people were white, all the white people weren’t power­ful. For a fascin­at­ing analysis of the shared economic struggles of middle-and-work­ing-class Amer­ic­ans across racial lines and how those exper­i­ences informed (or failed to inform) the strategy of the civil rights move­ment, see Risa Goluboff, The Lost Prom­ise of Civil Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univer­sity Press, 2007).

The United States’ history of exclu­sion shapes many of the chal­lenges we face today. Covid-19 has revealed signi­fic­ant racial and ethnic dispar­it­ies in who is most vulner­able to both the health and economic effects of the pandemic. foot­note6_g6rm­mqw 6 Compared to white, non-Hispanic people, the CDC reports that, as of May 2021, Amer­ican Indian or Alaska Native people are hospit­al­ized for Covid-19 at rates that are 3.3 times higher, Black or African Amer­ic­ans at 2.9 times higher, and Hispanic or Latino people at 2.8 times higher. Asian Amer­ic­ans are hospit­al­ized for Covid-19 at approx­im­ately the same rate as white Amer­ic­ans. “Risk for COVID-19 Infec­tion, Hospit­al­iz­a­tion, and Death By Race/Ethni­city,” Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion, last modi­fied May 26, 2021, accessed June 3, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/invest­ig­a­tions-discov­ery/hospit­al­iz­a­tion-death-by-race-ethni­city.html. And accord­ing to a survey conduc­ted by NPR, the Robert Wood John­son Found­a­tion, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 72 percent of Latino, 60 percent of Black, and 55 percent of Native Amer­ican house­holds report facing seri­ous finan­cial prob­lems during the Covid-19 outbreak, compared to just 36 percent of white house­holds. Kelly Anne Smith, “Covid and Race: House­holds of Color Suffer Most From Pandem­ic’s Finan­cial Consequences Despite Tril­lions in Aid,” Forbes, last modi­fied Septem­ber 17, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/advisor/personal-finance/covid-and-race-house­holds-of-color-suffer-biggest-pandemic-consequences/. Grow­ing gaps between the haves and have-nots track along race and gender lines, with a persist­ent gender wage gap and vast wealth dispar­it­ies. foot­note7_6j5610c 7 Greg Rosal­sky, “How the Pandemic is Making the Gender Pay Gap Worse,” NPR, August 18, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2020/08/18/903221371/how-the-pandemic-is-making-the-gender-pay-gap-worse; Neil Bhutta et al., “Dispar­it­ies in Wealth by Race and Ethni­city in the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances,” FEDS Notes, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Septem­ber 28, 2020, https://www.feder­alre­serve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/dispar­it­ies-in-wealth-by-race-and-ethni­city-in-the-2019-survey-of-consumer-finances-20200928.htm. As of 2019, the aver­age net worth of a Black family was about one-eighth that of a typical white family. foot­note8_5we35i9 8 Bhutta et al., “Dispar­it­ies in Wealth by Race and Ethni­city.” And Congress does not remotely resemble the nation it governs. The 117th Congress is the most diverse in U.S. history. And yet, it is 77 percent white and 73 percent male. foot­note9_b9wchzf 9 Kath­er­ine Schaef­fer, “Racial, Ethnic Diversity Increases Yet Again with the 117th Congress,” Pew Research Center, Janu­ary 28, 2021, https://www.pewre­search.org/fact-tank/2021/01/28/racial-ethnic-diversity-increases-yet-again-with-the-117th-congress/; Center for Amer­ican Women and Polit­ics, “CAWP Elec­tion Watch: Elec­tion 2020 Results Tracker,” Eagleton Insti­tute of Polit­ics, Rutgers Univer­sity, last modi­fied Febru­ary 8, 2021, accessed June 3, 2021, https://cawp.rutgers.edu/elec­tion2020-results-tracker. By compar­ison, the nation is roughly 60 percent white and 49 percent male. U.S. Census Bureau, “Quick­Facts: United States,” accessed June 3, 2021, https://www.census.gov/quick­facts/fact/table/US/PST0452198. During the 116th Congress, which held the previ­ous record for member diversity, fewer than five percent of U.S. House members cited blue-collar jobs in their biograph­ies, and 70 percent of all members came from just three white collar profes­sions: law, medi­cine, and busi­ness. foot­note10_k9hknzn 10 Kristen Bialik, “For the Fifth Time in a Row, the New Congress is the Most Racially and Ethnic­ally Diverse Ever,” Pew Research Center, Febru­ary 8, 2019, https://www.pewre­search.org/fact-tank/2019/02/08/for-the-fifth-time-in-a-row-the-new-congress-is-the-most-racially-and-ethnic­ally-diverse-ever/; Sahil Chinoy and Jessia Ma, “How Every Member Got to Congress,” New York Times, Janu­ary 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/inter­act­ive/2019/01/26/opin­ion/sunday/paths-to-congress.html.

The lesson is that governance “by and for the people” has always been an Amer­ican ideal. And it has always been an unmet ideal: Amer­ica’s lead­ers — and the people who choose them with their votes and their dollars — have never fully reflec­ted every­day Amer­ic­ans. This asym­metry between ordin­ary citizens and the polit­ical and donor class in govern­ment shapes what policies get made, and whose concerns get prior­it­ized by those in power. Indeed, it shapes who gets to parti­cip­ate, both as voters and lead­ers, in our demo­cracy. And with a status quo that leaves aside many voters and limits who may lead us, we are constrained in our abil­ity to real­ize our vision of a govern­ment of, by, and for the people. Some­thing must change.

Part of the prob­lem are the rules that struc­ture polit­ical power.

Over the past decade, the chal­lenges to a fair and equal demo­cracy have ballooned — from wide­spread, blatant voter suppres­sion, to extreme and discrim­in­at­ory gerry­man­der­ing, to a campaign finance system increas­ingly domin­ated by a small and unrep­res­ent­at­ive group of mega donors that serves as a barrier for many diverse candid­ates running for office. Right now, entrenched interests strug­gling against a chan­ging demo­graphy are making their final, grasp­ing efforts to main­tain an exclu­sion­ary system. Unfor­tu­nately, our laws and insti­tu­tions are not currently suffi­cient to prevent this anti-demo­cratic wave and to guar­an­tee a fair and truly repres­ent­at­ive demo­cracy.

But there is hope. There is a bill for this trans­form­at­ive moment: the For the People Act — our next great civil rights bill. foot­note11_5xzg3wx 11 Eliza­beth Hira, “The For the People Act is Amer­ica’s Next Great Civil Rights Bill,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, March 1, 2021, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/analysis-opin­ion/people-act-amer­icas-next-great-civil-rights-bill. This sweep­ing pack­age of demo­cracy reforms arrives against the back­drop of an exist­en­tial crisis over who Amer­ica is and what we stand for. The reforms of the For the People Act are tailored to meet these exact crises. The bill goes a signi­fic­ant way toward advan­cing equity in our polit­ical systems, all while dismant­ling many long­stand­ing inequit­ies that have hindered access and narrowed possible outcomes for a demo­cracy that serves every­one. Its most import­ant reforms would combat overt discrim­in­a­tion, affirm­at­ively expand oppor­tun­it­ies to vote for all eligible Amer­ic­ans, outlaw discrim­in­at­ory gerry­man­der­ing, and blunt the polit­ical effects of wealth inequal­ity.

Ulti­mately, the For the People Act envi­sions an inclus­ive Amer­ican future where every voter’s voice is heard, and where our lead­ers repres­ent and reflect our citizens. It is the best oppor­tun­ity we have ever had to fulfill the Amer­ican prom­ise of expand­ing who belongs in “We, the People.” Perhaps most import­antly, its basic reforms to the broken infra­struc­ture of demo­cracy are an urgent and neces­sary prerequis­ite to make way for the work we must do in every other arena — from protect­ing health­care to chal­len­ging the climate crisis, advan­cing educa­tion to embra­cing innov­a­tion — work that cannot afford to wait.

Equity for the People by The Bren­nan Center for Justice on Scribd

End Notes