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How to Fix American Democracy

Our government is supposed to be responsive to the will of the people. The For the People Act would mark a major step toward the necessary reforms.

Last Updated: January 20, 2021
Published: January 13, 2021
How to Fix American Democracy H.R. 1
Photo Illustration: Lincoln Agnew

The viol­ent attack in the U.S. Capitol was an attack on Amer­ican demo­cracy. It was the culmin­a­tion of efforts by Pres­id­ent Trump and his allies to over­turn the results of the Novem­ber elec­tion, fueled by repeated lies about wide­spread voter fraud. Had they been success­ful, these efforts would have disen­fran­chised millions of Amer­ic­ans, espe­cially target­ing Black and brown voters.

While the insur­rec­tion failed to nullify the elec­tion, the United States nonethe­less has faced years of mount­ing attempts to under­mine fair and equal repres­ent­a­tion. Voter suppres­sion efforts have become increas­ingly brazen, with recent laws in many states that make it unne­ces­sar­ily hard to vote. Many Amer­ic­ans have grown disil­lu­sioned by a polit­ical system that under­mines the will of voters through extreme gerry­man­der­ing and gives outsized influ­ence to a tiny class of wealthy mega-donors. And the last four years have under­scored the need for stronger guard­rails that prevent abuses of pres­id­en­tial power. All of these dynam­ics point to the need for the compre­hens­ive set of demo­cracy reforms laid out in the For the People Act (H.R. 1 in the House of Repres­ent­at­ives and S. 1 in the Senate), coupled with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act. 

After the insur­rec­tion at the Capitol last week, how would you describe the state of Amer­ican demo­cracy?

Wendy Weiser: What happened last week was not just an attack on the Capitol; it was an attack on our demo­cracy. This attack was spawned by repeated lies about voter fraud and thor­oughly debunked conspir­acy theor­ies about the integ­rity of our elec­tion system that were designed to over­turn the results of Novem­ber’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. They were part of a broader ille­git­im­ate scheme to thwart to elec­tion, which included attempts to disen­fran­chise millions of Amer­ic­ans, target­ing Black and brown voters. We need account­ab­il­ity for every­one who stoked and parti­cip­ated in this attack, but we also need stronger guard­rails to strengthen our demo­cracy to ensure that this can’t happen again in the future.

We just had a gruel­ing elec­tion cycle that saw, on the one hand, unpre­ced­en­ted mobil­iz­a­tion that led to historic voter turnout and, on the other, unpre­ced­en­ted efforts to thwart the elect­oral process and to disen­fran­chise voters of color. It should not take more than 300 lawsuits and massive amounts of organ­iz­ing around the coun­try just for people to have access to the ballot. But it did, because there isn’t a set of clear rules and proced­ures that ensure every eligible Amer­ican has fair voting access.

And let’s be clear: this didn’t start in 2020. Even though Pres­id­ent Trump has been driv­ing this lie for more than four years, it did not start with him and it will not end with him. The effort to restrict access to voting, fueled by lies about voter fraud, has been going on for a decade, and it escal­ated in 2013 after the Supreme Court gutted the protec­tions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. Self-inter­ested state legis­lat­ors have increased hurdles to voting and created gerry­mandered elect­oral districts; some have gone so far as to undo the work of their citizens who voted to expand the fran­chise. In 2018, for example, Flor­idi­ans voted over­whelm­ingly to restore voting rights to their fellow citizens with past felony convic­tions, only to have their state legis­lature signi­fic­antly under­cut the new law before those citizens could actu­ally vote.

Unfor­tu­nately, there has been a grow­ing move­ment among state legis­lat­ors and other lead­ers who use under­han­ded tactics to keep eligible Amer­ic­ans from voting or to keep their votes from count­ing. The push to nullify the results of the 2020 elec­tion was the most blatant and shock­ing example, but it is part of a larger anti-demo­cratic trend that we must thor­oughly combat and root out. That is why compre­hens­ive demo­cracy reform is really neces­sary.

The United States is simul­tan­eously exper­i­en­cing public health, economic, racial justice, and climate crises. Amid all of this, why should lawmakers prior­it­ize demo­cracy reform? 

Daniel I. Weiner: We can’t solve any of these major prob­lems without fixing our demo­cracy and ensur­ing that our govern­ment is actu­ally respons­ive to the needs and prior­it­ies of the Amer­ican people. People over­whelm­ingly want the crit­ical prob­lems we face addressed: climate change, gun viol­ence, economic inequal­ity — the list goes on. But it’s naïve to think that we can some­how tackle them when we have a polit­ical system that is strug­gling so much to trans­late the public’s will into govern­ment policy. Ulti­mately, demo­cracy reform is the linch­pin to achiev­ing concrete progress in other areas — and to address­ing the sense of disem­power­ment and alien­a­tion from our public insti­tu­tions that has helped to drive so much distrust and extrem­ism in our polit­ics.

Voting is argu­ably the corner­stone of our demo­cracy, and it is right­fully an integ­ral part of the For the People Act. If enacted, how would the bill reform our voting system?

Weiser: One crit­ical pillar of the For the People Act is focused on reform­ing our voting systems — both to counter voter suppres­sion tactics and, more broadly, to make it easier for eligible voters to cast their ballots. Over the last 40 years, we’ve often relied on the federal courts as a crit­ical back­stop to guar­an­tee voting rights. But while the current Court didn’t coun­ten­ance an effort to over­turn the elec­tion result, they have sent a very clear signal they’re not going to step in to vigor­ously protect voting rights. The Consti­tu­tion expressly gives Congress the primary respons­ib­il­ity for guar­an­tee­ing baseline stand­ards for access to the ballot in federal elec­tions. Every eligible Amer­ican should be able to rely on a basic level of voting access in federal elec­tions no matter where they live and who serves in their state legis­lature. That is why voting reform is a pillar of the For the People Act. And of course, it’s not just this bill. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is a crit­ical compan­ion to the For the People Act, would restore the full sweep of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and undo the damage of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision.

As you mentioned, the For the People Act isn’t just a voting bill; it has provi­sions that address redis­trict­ing, campaign finance, and govern­ment ethics. How are all of these reforms related? 

Weiner: To start, the For the People Act would prohibit extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing and take a vari­ety of other steps to make the redis­trict­ing process more trans­par­ent and access­ible, includ­ing requir­ing congres­sional redis­trict­ing to be done by inde­pend­ent commis­sions. Extreme gerry­man­der­ing has gotten substan­tially worse over the last decade as tech­no­logy has made it easier to draw gerry­mandered districts with intense preci­sion. I don’t think anyone believes that this prob­lem will some­how vanish in the new redis­trict­ing cycle start­ing in 2021 unless Congress takes affirm­at­ive steps to rein it in (some­thing even the more conser­vat­ive members of the Supreme Court agree it has the power to do).

Another pillar of the For the People Act involves reform of our campaign finance system. The 2020 elec­tion was far and away the most expens­ive elec­tion in Amer­ican history, and it contin­ued a trend where the vast major­ity of polit­ical spend­ing comes from a tiny coterie of people who are able to write checks in excess of $100,000 or even a million dollars. We know from extens­ive research that the people who fund campaigns wield enorm­ous clout in our polit­ical system. The way we fund campaigns also poses special chal­lenges for many candid­ates of color, espe­cially women, who often lack the wealthy networks from which many white candid­ates bene­fit.

Addi­tion­ally, the Supreme Court has been hostile to some types of campaign finance regu­la­tion, most notably in its much-reviled Citizens United decision. But there are actu­ally many policies still on the table — includ­ing small donor public finan­cing, which uses public funds to amplify small, private contri­bu­tions so that candid­ates don’t need to rely on the wealth­i­est donors. We’ve had small donor public finan­cing for pres­id­en­tial primar­ies since the 1970s. The For the People Act would revital­ize that system and extend it to congres­sional races (using an innov­at­ive fund­ing mech­an­ism that does­n’t rely on taxpayer funds). And it contains a number of other crit­ical reforms, includ­ing an over­haul of the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion, our dysfunc­tional federal campaign finance regu­lator.

The For the People Act also includes a suite of fairly ambi­tious ethics reforms. We need­n’t belabor the point that there have been enorm­ous ethical issues in the federal govern­ment over the last four years, many at the very top. Some of the For the People Act’s most signi­fic­ant provi­sions would apply basic ethical safe­guards — ones that already apply to other federal offi­cials — to the pres­id­ent and vice pres­id­ent. It would also take on many other long­stand­ing prob­lems that were uncovered over the past four years, such as the revolving door between industry and govern­ment, and the weak enforce­ment of federal ethics rules. 

All of these issues are very much inter­con­nec­ted. That’s why we have a historic, compre­hens­ive pack­age of reforms that addresses all the main facets of the dysfunc­tion that we see in our polit­ical system. 

What are the poten­tial paths toward passing and enact­ing the For the People Act? 

Weiser: Pres­id­ent-Elect Biden, Vice Pres­id­ent Elect Harris, Speaker Pelosi, and incom­ing Senate Major­ity Leader Schu­mer have each listed demo­cracy reform as one of their top prior­it­ies. We’re at a historic moment — unpre­ced­en­ted in the modern era — when the need for reforms to strengthen our demo­cracy could not be more urgent, and when all the incom­ing govern­ment lead­ers are focused on demo­cracy reform as a linch­pin issue.

Ulti­mately, demo­cracy reform should­n’t be a partisan issue — and until pretty recently, it wasn’t. Virtu­ally everything in the For the People Act is based on policy propos­als that have won bipar­tisan support at the state level and, in some cases, even in Congress. The last time the Voting Rights Act was reau­thor­ized, it had unan­im­ous approval in the Senate and over­whelm­ing support in the House; as recently as last session, meas­ures to restore protec­tions of the Voting Rights Act have achieved bipar­tisan support in Congress. In 2021, with Demo­crats controlling what makes it to the floor of the U.S. Senate, there’s an open­ing for some real good-faith nego­ti­ations. There’s an oppor­tun­ity to pass a substant­ive, ambi­tious pack­age of reforms, with or without changes to Senate rules. And regard­less of what happens in this Congress, the momentum for demo­cracy reform will continue to build. That work does­n’t just start afresh because of a new Congress. It’s cumu­lat­ive. What’s more, virtu­ally every policy in the For the People Act has been success­fully adop­ted in multiple states or local­it­ies across the coun­try and has been shown to work. The momentum for reform has contin­ued in multiple states. Success breeds further success.

Let’s talk about the move­ment that has powered the push for demo­cracy reform — a broad coali­tion that, perhaps most import­antly, includes the move­ment for racial justice.

Weiser: The For the People Act is suppor­ted not just by lead­ing civil rights and voting rights groups, but also by many other organ­iz­a­tions — includ­ing good govern­ment, reli­gious, labor, busi­ness, envir­on­mental, repro­duct­ive rights, and gun safety groups — that under­stand that achiev­ing a health­ier, more just soci­ety requires an over­haul of our demo­cratic insti­tu­tions to ensure that every­one has a voice. Apart from members of Congress, the For the People Act has also won support from many current and former elec­ted offi­cials around the coun­try, includ­ing prom­in­ent Repub­lic­ans — most recently, former RNC Chair­man Michael Steele. It is also suppor­ted by many lead­ing academ­ics who study the Amer­ican polit­ical process. For example, the Harvard Elect­oral Integ­rity Project, which surveyed 800 polit­ical scient­ists about the prob­lems facing our demo­cracy, recom­men­ded passage of the For the People Act as its top solu­tion. Many of the indi­vidual compon­ents of the For the People Act — such as auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, restor­a­tion of the right to vote for formerly incar­cer­ated people, and redis­trict­ing reform — have also been passed in the states by legis­latures or through refer­enda with broad bipar­tisan support.

The ongo­ing move­ment for racial justice in partic­u­lar is also driv­ing a push for mean­ing­ful reform. Racial justice cannot fully be achieved in this coun­try without push­ing our nation to honor the found­ing ideals of repres­ent­at­ive demo­cracy. It requires a system in which all Amer­ic­ans, partic­u­larly communit­ies of color, can advoc­ate for them­selves and exer­cise polit­ical power. That requires voting rights. That requires fair access to the ballot, fair redis­trict­ing, and a fair and equit­able campaign finance system.

Weiner: Look, these are profoundly import­ant changes, but they won’t magic­ally solve every prob­lem in our soci­ety. The goal is to provide a basic oper­at­ing system and basic tools that can hope­fully better effec­tu­ate the will of the Amer­ican people, in all its diversity and evol­u­tion. We will hope­fully rekindle a sense of real possib­il­ity on the part of the Amer­ican people that the prob­lems we have are solv­able. We can maybe even dare to hope for a renewed sense of common purpose.