As a result of the deepening divides in American politics over the last five years and the subsequent tumultuous presidential election in November, the state of the nation’s democracy is shaky to say the least. Our two governing parties are constantly shifting between offense and defense while the rest of the country sits on the benches, feeling wildly under-appreciated.
Moreover, politicians are playing dirty. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, an estimated $100 million of “dark money” was spent during the 2020 election between both Republicans and Democrats. Not only does this mark 2020 as the most expensive election year; it also means that the U.S. has spent over $1 billion in dark money since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) decision.
Dark money refers to election funds that aim to influence political outcomes from undisclosed sources. The Center for Responsive Politics explains that these funds typically come from opaque nonprofits, shell corporations, or politically active nonprofits, such as 501(c)(4)s. Political messaging is then sent to the public, who is unaware of the motives and credibility of the dark money entities behind those messages.
Of course, there have been many pushes for campaign finance reform over the last few decades, but the current charge comes in the form of the “For the People Act.”
Fair warning: you may way want to review “Schoolhouse Rock!’s” “I’m Just a Bill” before continuing.
What is “The For the People Act”?
The For the People Act is a reform bill that aims to change voting rights and campaign finance laws, limit gerrymandering, and create a new code of ethics for federal officeholders.
The bill was passed as H.R. 1 in the House last year with majority Democratic support, but it flatlined in the Senate. Now, Democrats have introduced it in the Senate. The bill has received primary prioritization, which suggests a mutual concern for the state of American democracy and political workings.
Congressman John Sarbanes is the lead sponsor of the For the People Act. In an interview with Business for America, Rep. Sarbanes said, “The enemy of our republic is cynicism, fundamentally, and anyone, wherever they find themselves on the political spectrum, can be infected with cynicism…particularly as people rediscover every two years that getting to the ballot box is like running an obstacle course.”
In order to avoid voter obstacle courses and mend mutual cynicism, the first division of the bill is dedicated to the expansion and accessibility of voter rights, with an emphasis on fair elections.
The Impacts of H.R. 1
H.R. 1 aims to make voting easier in the U.S. as only about two-thirds of eligible-age Americans voted in the last presidential election. The bill would promote Internet registration as well as create automatic, same-day voter registration across the country. It would also expand early and absentee voting, make the vote-by-mail process more efficient, and much more.
H.R. 1: Election Security and Integrity
In addition to these changes, H.R.1 would strengthen election security and integrity by encouraging the use of paper ballots and prohibiting voter suppression tactics.
Another goal of H.R. 1 is to limit partisan gerrymandering, which is currently creating division and extremism in American politics. This limitation could crack the partisan redistricting process and allow citizens to think, vote, and care both freely and effectively.
The Center for American Progress reports that unfairly drawn congressional districts shifted approximately 59 seats in the House in the last decade — specifically in the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections. More specifically, this means that 59 politicians that would not have been elected based on statewide voter support for their party won anyway because the lines were drawn in their favor—often by their allies in the Republican or Democratic Party.”
By limiting or banning gerrymandering, voters would be represented fairly, and every vote would count more equally.
H.R. 1: Campaign Finance Reform and New Ethics Rules
The second and third sections of H.R. 1 would further clean up elections through campaign finance reform and new ethics rules that recondition things like lobbying and the influence economy in politics.
Esquire reports that the bill “mandates presidents release their tax returns, expands conflict-of-interest policy and divestment requirements, attempts to slow the ‘revolving door’ by which members of Congress and their staff flit between government and the private sector, peddling their insider connections, and prevents those members from serving on corporate boards.”
In this sense, the bill demands transparency from politicians and lobbyists alike, aiming to break the shady dealings that happen behind the scenes in Washington.
H.R. 1 Tackles Dark Money in Politics
Through the employment of the “DISCLOSE Act,” H.R. 1 would tackle dark money in politics. Political donors would be required to disclose their identities, while candidates that refuse dark money would receive matching funds from the government.
Financial emphasis could then be put on the American people, rather than the rich, corporate, and powerful. Everyday people would be able to make small donations, only to have them grow and expand through the government matching process. Political candidates would then be incentivized to listen and engage with the public.
Additionally, foreign nationals would be banned from American political fundraising, and opaque non-profits and misused charities could be investigated for their roles in political spending. The bill would also enforce an “Honest Ads” policy, which would require stronger financial disclosures for online political advertisements. Further still, a “Right to Know” policy would force corporate shareholders to disclose their political activities.
Rep. Sarbanes says: “The best organizations are the ones where there’s ethical leadership from the top that creates a culture of accountability and transparency.” These qualities are desirable in political leadership because they transcend partisan lines, which is a major angle of the bill.
Opposition to H.R. 1
Despite its promising aspects and support, H.R. 1 is being debated for several reasons.
Changes to the legal voting age (which would be lowered to 16), the restoration of voting rights to felons, and the facilitation of automatic voter registration are just some of the components of H.R. l that are receiving public pushback. More still, the bill would not entirely eliminate the role of the rich and powerful in our democracy, as those ties run deep in American structures.
Republican Critiques of H.R. 1: Free Speech and Federal Bureaucracy
Some Republicans believe that the bill infringes on free speech rights and unjustly increases federal bureaucracy. Those same Republicans also claim that the bill utilizes a politicized approach to campaign finance reform. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claims that the bill “seems to be a package of urgent measures to rewrite the rules of American politics for the exclusive benefit of the Democratic Party.”
However, in recent decades, Republicans have created political structures specifically made to benefit their party in campaigns and elections. The Citizens United decision, for instance, allowed the continual use of dark money in politics.
The party has also made it increasingly difficult for Americans to vote and access polls, specifically for underprivileged and minority areas. On the flip side, the most recent change in voting that has benefitted the Democratic party was the transition to mail-in voting for November’s presidential election.
H.R. 1 is not a new fight for Democrats. It is a comprehensive piece of reform legislation that includes long-time arguments and desires to change voting and elections in the U.S.. If the bill is overturned or blocked by the filibuster, those arguments and desires won’t disappear.