HR 1 brings successful local, state reforms to the federal level and deserves passage

Moriah Ratner

Lost in today’s debates on voting rights is a simple fact: many positive reforms—such as those proposed by House Democrats in H.R. 1, the For the People Act—are already working successfully in various states and localities throughout the country. They are the products of everyday Americans of both sides advocating, on a grassroots level, for important fixes to their own elections.

Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have predictably bashed H.R. 1 as a Democratic “power grab” and peddled false accusations of rampant voter fraud. What they fail to recognize is that many of the ideas already have bipartisan support in state and local elections across the country. H.R. 1 would simply implement them nationwide.

{mosads}The easing of felon disenfranchisement laws is a classic example. Kentucky has the most restrictive felon disenfranchisement law in the country, yet its practice became just a tad less severe a few years ago after the state passed a bill that allows eligible felons to seek an expungement of their records. That reform came about only because an individual named West Powell decided to speak up, testifying before the state’s senate judiciary committee on the bill.

“I’ve beared [sic] this cross for a long time,” he said. “I know I made a mistake. I think I’ve paid for that mistake—four times over. . . . I’m not a criminal. I was a stupid kid and made a stupid mistake.” After only four minutes of testimony, a key Republican senator, Whitney Westerfield, was convinced. He changed his mind on the spot and lobbied his fellow Republicans to support the measure. Now people like West Powell can have their records expunged and regain the right to vote.

Of course, that’s not as strong as H.R. 1’s proposal, which would re-enfranchise all felons after they complete their sentences. But it’s a step in the right direction, accomplished at the state level thanks to the advocacy of people like West Powell and the open mind of legislators like Whitney Westerfield.

Florida’s adoption of a state constitutional amendment last year to revise its own felon disenfranchisement law offers another example: people like Desmond Meade and his Florida Rights Restoration Coalition told the story of the impact voting rights can have on individuals. That convinced over 60 percent of the state’s voters—Democrats, Republicans, and independents—to support the measure. Now over 1 million Floridians can once again rejoin their political community through voting after they serve their time.

Even seemingly-mundane election administration rules embedded within H.R. 1 are already working, with bipartisan support. Consider automatic voter registration, a mechanism by which the state automatically puts anyone on the voter rolls who it knows is an eligible voter, regardless of whether they affirmatively sign up, allowing them to opt out if they want. That reform started with the innovative thinking of an election official in Oregon, Steve Trout, who—along with then-Secretary of State (and now Governor) Kate Brown—crafted the idea and found a way to make it work. Yet it also took the ingenuity of individuals and organizations, like the Oregon Bus Project, to convince lawmakers to see it through. Now automatic voter registration is the law in over a dozen states, with more on the way. This reform improves turnout in such politically diverse places as Vermont and Georgia, California and Alaska.

Partisan gerrymandering also has a bipartisan fix through independent redistricting commissions, adopted already in several jurisdictions. As advocates in states like Michigan and cities like Sacramento have shown, we need not wait for the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court to solve the problem, at least in many states. The voters themselves approved independent redistricting commissions to take politics out of the line-drawing business. The catalyst in Michigan was a single Facebook post from a young woman named Katie Fahey, who posted simply to vent her frustration about the political system and see if anyone else wanted to become involved. All of a sudden that Facebook post led to thousands of people working on the issue through a new nonpartisan grassroots organization, Voters Not Politicians. As she noted, they were “overthrowing the government…peacefully.”

The focus of many in the voting rights world is on the scourge of voter suppression and the perils of restrictive voting rules. That’s not wrong, but it’s incomplete. We must also work toward positive voting rights enhancements that bring more people into the democratic process and make it easier to vote.

Advocates are working to enhance accessibility at the polls in New Hampshire. They promote voter-friendly policies like universal vote-by-mail (also called vote at home) and countywide Vote Centers in Colorado. They champion a new way of selecting candidates, Ranked Choice Voting, in Maine. They reduce the influence of big money by using publicly funded Democracy Vouchers – a way for everyone to donate to candidates – in Seattle. They are working on improved civics education and promoting the power of national and local journalism all over.

H.R. 1, the congressional bill to improve our elections, would adopt many of these practices throughout the country. We know they work, with bipartisan support, because local advocates have already proven their success at the state and local levels.

Joshua A. Douglas is a law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who specializes in election law, voting rights, and constitutional law. He is the author of Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting. Find him at www.joshuaadouglas.com  — where you can see his book tour dates — and follow him on Twitter @JoshuaADouglas.

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