Democrats have proposed H.R. 1, a bill that would make our democracy more equitable, improved access for vulnerable groups to have a real say in how we are governed, and roll back voting restrictions that have disproportionately harmed people of color.
That’s why it is the first bill of the new Democratic House majority—and likely why Senate Republicans have expressed strong opposition to it, given that the GOP, with a strong assist from the Supreme Court, is responsible for most of the laws in recent years that have made it harder for certain groups of Americans to vote.
The bill’s purpose is “to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants. Demos president, Sabeel Rahman, called it a “bold democracy reform agenda” with goals of “expanding access to the polls, modernizing voter registration, and protecting voters from aggressive purging.”
While it is highly unlikely the legislation will be passed by the Republican Senate, or signed by President Trump, the measures of the bill are popular with American voters.
In a tweet and in a floor speech, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made his conspiratorial fears known about H.R.1, the “For the People Act.” McConnell said the bill is “the far left’s sprawling effort to seize more control of the political process. It’s an attempt to rewrite the rules of American politics to benefit the Democrats and their friends.”
He is not alone in opposing the bill. The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board called H.R. 1 an effort of “harvesting democratic votes.”
But this would be a win for democracy, not for Democrats or the “far left.” Expanding access to the franchise would make our country’s electoral system healthier, more trusted.
The day before McConnell’s diatribe, Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, started a committee hearing with a stark reminder of what happened on June 25, 2013. On that day, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Shelby County vs. Holder restructured our electoral system more to McConnell’s liking and placed the fate of hard-won voting rights in jeopardy, hurting people of color the most. The Court struck down the formula from the 1965 Voting Rights Act that determined which states and localities would be subject to the preclearance requirement based on their histories of discrimination with voting.
Nadler said “predictably, some states wasted no time enacting discriminatory voter suppression laws in the wake of the Shelby County decision. In fact, North Carolina and Texas announced their intention to reinstate such measures just one day after Shelby County was decided.”
The business of the House Judiciary Committee that day was to discuss how H.R. 1. can place our country’s position on voting rights back on the right track for us all. How, exactly, could this bill help people of color?
First, it reaffirms the commitment of Congress to restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, alluding to potential future legislation the House may pursue. As Nadler mentioned, states and jurisdictions formerly under the purview of the Justice Department’s preclearance quickly moved to make voting harder. By 2016, there were 868 fewer places to vote in the United States. That matters. Cuts in early voting in North Carolina in 2016, for instance, led to 16 percent decrease in black turnout compared to 2012.
Second, the bill would prohibit the insidious practice of purging voters who vote too infrequently. Last year, in Husted v. A. Phillip Randolph Institute, the Supreme Court held that the National Voter Registration Act permits states to target registrants for removal from the voter rolls if the registrants do not vote with what a state determines to be sufficient frequency, and if they don’t respond to notices from election officials. Since it’s not unusual for voters to miss a specific election, especially a mid-term, this practice can have painful and inaccurate consequences. Moreover, purges are often plagued with mistakes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.3 percent of Hispanic people and 13 percent of black people have one of the 10 most common surnames, compared to 4.5 percent of white people, which means that people of color are in greater danger of being purged by being mistaken for someone else.
The greatest benefits of the bill may come from automatic voter registration (AVR), which would effectively make registration an opt-out instead of opt-in process. People who are registered are more likely to vote. A study by Demos showed that “the rate of voter turnout among all eligible citizens was only 64 percent in 2008 and 62 percent in 2012; but the rate of voter turnout of people registered to vote was 90 percent in 2008, and 87 percent in 2012.”
According to the Census Bureau, whites (73.9 percent registered) enjoy a 4.5 percent lead over African Americans (69.4 percent) in registration and a 16.6 percent lead over Hispanics (57.3 percent). Implementing AVR can help close that gap.
The bill’s provision for same-day registration could also increase turnout among communities of color. During the 2008 presidential election, North Carolina pioneered its use of same-day registration. African Americans made up 36 percent of those who used same-day registration to vote, even though they represent only 20 percent of the voting age population.
The bill also incorporates Nadler’s “Democracy Restoration Act,” which would restore federal voting rights for ex-offenders following the marked success of Florida’s voting rights restoration referendum. Felony convictions used to strip people of voting rights disproportionately affect people of color.
Or as Nadler said in his opening statement: “Not only is ex-offender disenfranchisement wrong and anti-democratic in and of itself, many of these laws were deliberately designed to entrench white supremacy. And they continue to have a particularly disproportionate impact on communities of color, exacerbating the racially discriminatory effect of other voter suppression measures.”
It is seldom that naming white supremacy and its insidious and nearly ubiquitous presence in our laws makes its way into committee hearings. This bill is a direct assault on the electoral footing of white supremacy.
McConnell and his acolytes are operating out of fear—both the spreading of fear of a faux, far-left plot, and the true worry that their political positions are only secured by an outdated, limiting electoral system that shuts out many. Perhaps McConnell is worried because this bill would restore voting rights to the one-fifth of black citizens of voting age in his state who lost their rights because of past convictions. H.R. 1 could activate voters who have too often been marginalized, and it could unlock the unique opportunity to make good on our promise of democracy.