When an ambitious bill designated as H.R. 1 was approved by the newly empowered Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives back on March 8, 2019, perhaps a fitting salute to the sponsors would have been “Bless their hearts!”
The bill, earnestly nicknamed the “For the People Act,” aimed broadly to shore up Americans’ voting rights and make our democracy work better in the interest of all. It didn’t stand a chance.
Republicans who controlled the Senate followed their party’s fewer-voters-the-better playbook and brushed the bill aside. Its backers mostly shrugged. H.R. 1 was a nice statement of principles and it offered a template for reforms, but few had expected it to succeed.
The bill was the first piece of House legislation introduced in the 116th Congress. Two years later, it was revived to be given a similar place of honor as the 117th Congress got down to business. But the circumstances hardly could have been more different.
What could have been seen as a feel-good measure in 2019 now shapes up as an urgent effort to shield our democratic system from imminent threats. And this time, its passage by the House a few days ago isn’t necessarily bound to become an exercise in futility. Republican opponents in the Senate may still have the upper hand, but they can’t take it for granted.
That’s the kind of thing that can happen when 1) the nation is hit with the worst pandemic in a century, 2) the incumbent president who botches his response to the pandemic loses re-election while falsely blaming voter fraud, 3) the Senate narrowly flips to Democratic control, and 4) Donald Trump’s effort to overturn his defeat culminates in the storming of the Capitol by a violent mob.
Among Republican lawmakers in state after state – lawmakers aligning with Trump’s groundless gripe that the election was stolen from him by Democratic fraudsters — the push is on to curb what’s seen as dangerous levels of voter participation. Dangerous to Republicans, that is.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which tracks these matters, says that as of Feb. 19, “legislators in 43 states have carried over, pre-filed, or introduced more than 250 bills that would make it harder to vote — over seven times the number of restrictive bills as compared to roughly this time last year. These bills primarily seek to limit mail voting and impose stricter voter ID requirements.”
Yes, election rules in many states were adjusted last year to help voters avoid a deadly encounter with COVID-19. Mail-in voting was made easier, as occurred in North Carolina, and some deadlines were relaxed.
But it’s just self-serving GOP fiction that those changes – benefitting all voters, whichever their party or lack of party – facilitated cheating that cost Trump the White House and Republicans their Senate majority. The real intent here is to double down on old-fashioned voter suppression targeting citizens inclined to favor Democratic candidates because of their policies.
Of course, Trump and many other Republicans did well in North Carolina last fall despite a record-setting turnout and heavy use of mail-in absentee ballots. Perhaps that helps explain why no voting-crackdown bills have yet to surface in our General Assembly’s current session.
But for North Carolina’s eight Republican U.S. House members, H.R. 1’s strengthening of voting rights apparently promised too much of a good thing. Or maybe they, along with the rest of the House Republican caucus, were intimidated by the grievance-oozing Squire of Mar-a-Lago as he maneuvers to keep the party under his thumb. Not a single Republican backed the bill when it was approved 220-210 on March 3.
Voices at the polls
The For the People Act addresses a range of issues bearing on Americans’ right to vote in free and fair elections – with the premise being that a democracy worth the name must encourage every eligible citizen to have his or her say. That happens to be a premise embedded in the principles of social justice to which the N.C. Council of Churches is committed.
Among other steps, the bill would:
- Require states to offer at least 15 days of early voting when federal offices are being filled.
- Provide for registration and voting on the same day (as North Carolina already does during the early-voting period).
- Require registration to be available online and make it automatic when someone interacts with certain agencies such as the DMV, with safeguards against identity fraud.
- Make Election Day a federal holiday.
- Guarantee that citizens could vote by mail without an excuse, and set forth standards to make the process operate smoothly and securely.
- Protect against abusive, partisan purges of voter rolls.
- Ensure that people released from prison are allowed to vote – removing a barrier to full citizenship unfairly affecting Black Americans in particular.
- Reaffirm anti-discrimination protections established by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but since weakened by the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequent laws.
The bill’s reach extends into other parts of our democratic superstructure. For example, it would require more openness as to the sources of campaign contributions – attacking the “dark money” loophole that allows mega-donors to certain kinds of political committees to hide their identities. Enforcement of contribution limits would be strengthened, as would protection against foreign election interference via dark-money channels.
Addressing a problem all too familiar in North Carolina, the bill would short-circuit the cycle of partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to have congressional district boundaries set by independent commissions. Seats on the panels would be balanced along partisan lines, with unaffiliated members also included. There’s really no excuse for North Carolina not to proceed with this reform whether or not H.R. 1 (or S. 1 as it will be relabeled) becomes law – other than that the Republican legislators who now control redistricting enjoy wielding that power to their party’s benefit, to the extent the courts will let them.
It was that same type of partisan self-interest on the part of U.S. Senate Republicans, then in the majority, that doomed H.R. 1 two years ago.
Obstruction in the balance
But what about now? With the Senate evenly divided at 50-50, Democratic Vice President Harris can break ties in her party’s favor whenever a simple majority will suffice. Yet as a practical matter, a consequential bill such as H.R. 1 must clear a higher hurdle because of the Senate’s traditional deference to the filibuster – a parliamentary tactic preventing a final vote unless 60 senators agree to end debate.
The filibuster theoretically serves a valid purpose by encouraging a majority faction to try to win support from the minority. But when the minority seems to prioritize obstruction for partisan advantage, as has been the typical posture of latter-day Senate Republicans, there comes a point when whatever value the filibuster may have had is ripe for reconsideration.
Democrats in the Senate may not have enough votes of their own to abolish it outright, and President Biden, with his loyalty to Senate traditions, has said that wouldn’t be his “preference.” But savvy denizens of Capitol Hill should be able to devise ways at least to make the filibuster harder to invoke while not taking it off the books entirely.
It’s been suggested, for instance, that senators staging a filibuster actually be required to speak on the Senate floor for the duration, as used to be the practice. Or the rule could be suspended when the subject at issue was as fundamental as voting rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
With the entire kettle of voting rights issues boiling on the front burner in the wake of 2020’s tumult and the failed coup attempt driven by Donald Trump’s preposterous election fraud charges, altering the filibuster to give the For the People Act a reasonable chance in the Senate looks like it should be a basic precaution in the defense of our nation’s system of government. That’s “government of the people, by the people, (and yes) for the people.” As Abraham Lincoln put it, and lest we forget.