The parts of H.R. 1 you haven’t heard about
This week the House of Representatives is poised to vote on H.R. 1, the “For the People Act.” The bill’s marquee provisions to protect the freedom to vote, end gerrymandering, and reduce the undue influence of money in the political process have received well-deserved attention. It is a transformative bill. The For The People Act would set fair, baseline standards to reverse the coordinated, Republican-led state efforts to restrict voting at the state level. More than 250 such restrictive bills have already been filed or carried over in state legislatures this year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice — part of a partisan backlash to the historic turnout in 2020 when Americans, especially Black and Brown voters, showed up in record numbers in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
But like any comprehensive bill, there is far more than meets the eye. The bill has numerous other provisions to bolster and strengthen democracy. Here are just a few.
Suppose you decide to run for office using the For the People Act’s provisions that make it easier for everyday Americans to mount competitive campaigns that do not rely on big money donors. You gather the signatures to get on the ballot and turn them in to your local election office. It turns out that your state’s chief election official — the administrator responsible for the mechanics of the election — is the chairperson of your opponent’s campaign. The official may even be your opponent’s top fundraiser. At a bare minimum, this appears to be a conflict of interest that undermines confidence in a fair election. The For the People Act addresses this by prohibiting chief election officials like secretaries of states from managing, fundraising, or otherwise taking part in the campaigns of federal candidates whose elections they oversee.
A few months later, your opponent receives a strange message. It says the “Crown prosecutor” of a hostile foreign power has some “official documents and information that would incriminate” you, and that it is “obviously very high level and sensitive information” that is part of the hostile foreign power’s effort to support your opponent’s campaign. (Emails like this led to the infamous Trump Tower meeting where the Trump campaign anticipated it would receive dirt on Secretary Clinton from the Russian government. It was a subject of the Mueller report and watchdog complaints with the Department of Justice.) To protect against foreign interference in elections, the For the People Act requires political campaigns—including super PACs—to disclose to the F.B.I. and the Federal Election Commission any offers of illicit campaign help from foreign governments. It levies hefty penalties for non-compliance. It also prohibits campaigns from sharing nonpublic campaign information like internal polling with foreign governments.
Then a global pandemic strikes and makes in-person voting risky. The president takes steps to install a loyalist as postmaster general, who puts in place policies to slow down the mail and risk the on-time delivery of vote-by-mail ballots. The For the People Act would require all absentee ballots to be carried by the speedier first-class mail standard, postage prepaid.
Fast forward to election day. Because of the For the People’s Act provisions like expanded vote-by-mail, automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration and two weeks of early voting, turnout is at a record high. Nonetheless, your opponent files a frivolous challenge to a voting law that goes all the way to the United States Supreme Court. One of the justices who will hear the case attended a political retreat run by one of the outside groups that spent millions opposing your campaign. At a minimum, it raises questions about the justice’s impartiality and adherence to high ethical standards of judicial independence. But there is no binding code of ethics that applies to the Supreme Court as there is for all other federal judges. H.R. 1 would require the United States Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct to apply to all Supreme Court justices. It would also require outside groups spending money supporting and opposing the confirmation of federal judges to disclose their top donors to the public. Both reforms in H.R. 1 would install transparency and accountability and bolster the independence and integrity of the Supreme Court.
As these provisions make clear, the For the People Act at its core is about strengthening the freedom of Americans to vote; breaking the grip of big money on the political process; and ensuring our public officials abide by high ethical standards. And its approach is inclusive of many important solutions to rebalance power for the people. As it passes the House, the Senate must take up the bill swiftly and send it to President Biden’s desk.
Stephen Spaulding is Senior Counsel for Public Policy and Senior Advisor at Common Cause. He was previously the Senior Elections Counsel to the Committee on House Administration and Special Counsel to former FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveESpaulding.