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Politics and Voting

H.R. 1 could Change Voting but won’t because Congressional Republicans are Set to Tank it…Again

Legislating and Public Relations

In each Congress, the bill number H.R. 1 is reserved for the majority party’s top goal. In the 117th Congress, controlled by Democrats that bill is the For the People Act of 2021 which passed the House on March 3, 2021. This is an ambitious elections reform bill, which is modeled after the 116th Congress’ H.R.1 that failed by not make it through (or even really into) the Republican controlled Senate. For context, the last time Republicans controlled the House (115th Congress) H.R. 1 was An Act to provide for reconciliation pursuant to titles II and V of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2018 aka the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which was successfully enacted into law.

Unlike the 116th Congress spanning 2019–2020 things are different this time. With a 50–50 Republican-Democratic split in the Senate plus Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie breaker, we could actually see some movement on the ways US elections are funded and conducted if H.R. 1 were to get a vote and pass.

Some of the key elements that would change:

Many provisions of this bill have been implemented in different states and localities. H.R. 1 has a public donor matching element which is a system intended to inject more state up fairness into elections by allowing candidates who are not independently wealthy or buttressed by interested who are to compete in elections by matching a certain amount of donations with public funds if a candidate agrees to adhere to a cap on overall spending. New York City has a system like this in place for municipal elections. Democracy or voter vouchers are similar, in that they allow citizens to direct a certain amount of public funds to the candidate of their choice; Seattle uses this style of funding for some elections. Currently 36 states have online registration, a host of state agencies participate in automatic voter registration, and 21–23 states allow for same day voter registration. When it comes to post census redistricting — which we are all shortly set to endure — H. R. 1 mandates a system already used in 7 states to draw district lines via commission versus by state legislators. All together, this reform package is being heralded as a must pass if we hope to continue on as a functional democracy by democracy protection organizations such as the Brennan Center for Justice.

However, despite there being a host of states using similar reforms, and despite there being popular support among the people of the US for many of the provisions, the Democratic priority piece of legislation, H.R. 1 is set to die another for the second time in the House. There are a few reasons why.

First, unless the Senate reforms the use of the filibuster the procedural strategy is a hurdle that bare majorities in both chambers can’t clear. Without 60 people in the Senate on board for any reform, there is no way this bill will be granted a cloture vote, and thus final passage is entirely off the table. Owing to the nature of the bill, it won’t be eligible for the budget reconciliation process, so unless the filibuster is reformed or removed, H.R. 1 is no more than a pipe dream talking point.

Democrats in the electorate would have good reason to be disappointed if the leadership again picked a promise it was unable to deliver on, despite winning majorities capable of reshaping the rules of the chambers. Beyond disappointment, Democrats for the next ten years may not find themselves in majorities capable to make such reforms as Republican controlled legislatures in the states will largely be able to redistrict once final 2020 Census numbers are in in ways that all but ensure greater chances of winning the House in the future.

Adding a different sense of urgency on top of the real threat of district gerrymandering, states controlled by Republicans are increasingly introducing legislation to make voting access more restrictive and voting itself harder. In 43 states, 250 different laws have be introduced by Republicans in this year alone to make voting harder. Without a removal or modification of the filibuster, and without passage of legislation like H.R. 1 the outlook for democracy in the US is grim as Dr. Adam Bonica and Charlotte Hill at Stanford and UC Berkley respectively recently described.

Setting aside the filibuster for a moment, Congressional Republicans are doing way more PR work on why H.R. 1 is a bad bill than Congressional Democrats are doing the sell for— already popular — goals of the act. This sort of lip service, framing, and media management matters. As we know from years of support for common sense gun use reforms within the public, but zero actualized legislation at the federal level, narrative can be more powerful than the underlying will of the people. And if a bill is unpopular to begin with, electorally vulnerable or marginal members will not face cross pressures to support legislation in the first place. This is not to say there is not a robust debate to be had about this piece of legislation, but that as it’s going now one side is making and registering arguments with constituents more often than the other.

Counts of e-newsletters mentioning H.R. 1 by Party (January 3-March 11, 2021)

Republicans are doing their best to push against this bill in their official communications, through both arguments and imagery. Below I present a few examples, but for people wanting more this page is updated monthly will all of the official e-newsletters sent to constituents. Some are deriding it with the alternative name, “For the Politicians Bill”. Others are putting forth the argument that the bill violates Section 1 Article 4 of the Constitution, alleging it gives states the right to determine how to administer their elections — despite the fact that this section of the Constitution also contains, “And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.”. When describing the matching provisions, Rep. Carlos A. Gimenez (R-FL) tell constituents “This effectively forces you, the American taxpayer, to finance political campaigns you do not support.” Congressman Rodney Davis (R-IL) sent along an e-newsletter with the subject line, Weekly Update: Democrats Want the Federal Government In Control of Our Elections. And Rep. Blake Moore (R-UT) told constituents on March 11,

The For the People Act undermines Americans’ faith in our elections by consolidating more power in Washington through banning voter ID laws, robbing state and local governments of their constitutional right to administer their own elections, providing public funding for campaigns, permitting political candidates to use campaign funds to support their personal lives, and more.

French Hill (R-AR) included a link to a Youtube presentation describing his opposition to the bill. Representative Glenn Grothman (R-WI) and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) are using images to let people know that this bills makes all the awful parts of elections more likely as they’d be publicly funded.

Congressman Glenn Grothman (R-WI) E-newsletter March 6, 2021, Michael Cloud (R-T) March 9, 2021
Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) E-newsletter March 10, 2021

And Congressman Drew Ferguson (R-GA) has even gone so far as to say, “This dangerous bill would also allow illegal immigrants in our country to vote and eliminate picture ID requirements for voting across the nation.”

While a number of Democrats mentioned the bill at the start of the term, they’ve since been outpaced by Republicans communicating on the subject to their constituents. Of those who’ve mentioned the bill they have done so to say it passed the House (220-to-210) and to take credit for their own amendments that have been included.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) March 12, 2021 e-newsletter

There are a few anodyne comments on the basic thrust of the legislation, such as this from Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX), “The For the People Act, H.R. 1, strengthens voting rights across the country, cleans up corruption, and brings transparency to our elections. It is critical legislation to ensure that our government remains one of, by, and the people.” but the volume of messages and tenor is much less intense than those sent by Republicans.

Democrats have either take their eye off the ball while they pursue other policy goals, assume the bill is popular enough to not have to work to convince people to pressure their own elected officials, or see that this is an impossible ask given Senate procedure, so they’ve just stopped pushing. Whatever the rationale, if a party makes a set of promises to win an election and then can’t make good on those promises after holding each part of the law-making bodies people would be well justified in losing faith in that party. With more active Republican attempts to actually use power to change the way states conduct elections, if Democrats don’t act now there might not be much left for them to do over the coming decade.

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3Streams is a blog for anyone interested in the convergence of politics, policy & ideas. It elevates the work of scholars interested in reaching a wider audience on timely topics with novel perspectives. To write for the blog, just leave a message or email 3Streamsblog@gmail.com.

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Lindsey Cormack

Lindsey Cormack

I am an assistant professor of political science and run www.dcinbox.com. I teach at Stevens Institute of Technology and reside on the Upper East Side

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