Will 2021 be Defined by Voting Rights and Electoral Reform?

The U.S. is in desperate need of legislation to bring transformative change to its democracy. Here’s what activists and lawmakers propose.

Will 2021 be Defined by Voting Rights and Electoral Reform?
A 2018 March For Our Lives rally in D.C. (Vince Reinhart / Flickr)

“Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons [and daughters] of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.”

—-Federalist No. 57

Despite the rhetorically progressive foundations of the United States, more than 200 years later, the U.S. struggles to uphold this quote from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and many more of the ideals laid down by the founding fathers.

Throughout 2020 and into 2021—whether it was the continued police brutality against Black men and women, the post hoc attempt to question and disenfranchise votes cast in diverse districts, or the inequitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine across the country—a larger and larger swath of the public is beginning to understand what activists have been sounding the alarm about for decades: U.S. democratic institutions are far from fair. And while the U.S. touts being a representative democracy, many individuals and communities remain underrepresented and face increasing obstacles to exercise their right to vote

With 2020 being largely defined by the crises which continue to wrack American democracy, democratic reformers hope 2021 will be defined by the actions we take to address and correct the pitfalls of our electoral system and the continued disenfranchisement of huge portions of the American population. 

And there is no shortage of work to do, since voting rights are still under attack, especially at the state level. Although the 2020 presidential and congressional elections saw some of the largest voter turnout in U.S. history, a February report from the Brennan Center shows 33 states have introduced 165 bills suppressing and restricting the right to vote—up from 35 such bills across 13 states in February of 2020

As the 117th Congress begins to introduce legislation, the voting rights and electoral reform communities have coalesced around bill with growing support both inside Congress and across the country—reforms which “respond directly to Americans’ desire for real solutions that ensure that each of us can have a voice in the decisions that govern our lives.” Reforms aimed to create a more accessible democracy which reflects the true diversity of our country. 

Voting Rights Reforms to Keep an Eye Out for

These bills have been endorsed by voting rights advocates including the NAACP, the Brennan Center, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. 

HR1: For the People Act

The For the People Act was the very first piece of legislation proposed by the Democratic Party in both chambers—in the House, HR 1, introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), and in the Senate, S1, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

Considered “the most important legislation considered by Congress in decades,” the has been signed by every House Democrat and will go to the floor of the House for a vote in early March. The Act includes many reforms to ensure every American can exercise their right to vote and ensure elections are conducted safely and fairly. The Act would:

  • Expand vote-by-mail and lay out universal standards, including eliminating the need for a notary, witness or ID to vote-by-mail; eliminating the need to submit a reason for a vote-by-mail ballot; and making it easier to obtain and cast mail-in ballots. 

  • Increase opportunities for voter registration by allowing for online voting registration; automatic voter registration; same-day voter registration; pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds; and put in protections to prevent the purging of voter rolls.

  • Restore voting rights to those with past criminal convictions. 

  • Implement protections against discrimination and partisan gerrymandering. 

  • Increase election security and authorize election administration funding. 

HR 4: John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR 4) builds upon and expands the Voting Rights Act (VRA) passed in 1965. The Act implements a new preclearance formula which was stripped from the VRA in the 2015 Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision. The Act would:

  • Expand the time period in which election observers can be sent by the Department of Justice.

  • Increase transparency provisions, requiring jurisdictions to provide notice of voting changes within 180 days of federal election and give notice of changes in polling places within 30 days of federal elections. 

  • Allow for private right to action, expanding what the VRA emphasizes which was right of action from Attorneys General and other election officials. 

HR 51: DC Admission Act

DC Admission Act (HR 51), introduced by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), currently has 210 co-sponsors in the House, 46 supporters in the Senate and is considered a top priority by both Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer. If passed, the Act will enfranchise 712,000 Americans currently living without a vote in Congress. 

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Electoral Reforms To Keep an Eye Out For

While the above voting reform bills set out to ensure all individuals can exercise their right to vote, the right to vote alone will not cure the systemic underrepresentation many communities continue to face. Electoral reforms including changes to voting systems, district design and the size of the U.S. House would improve the elected representation of women and communities of color. 

These reform bills have been endorsed by several electoral reform groups and advocates including RepresentWomen and FairVote. 

The Fair Representation Act

The Fair Representation Act sponsored by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) implements fair representation voting to replace our current winner-take-all system which favors incumbents, hindering diversity and often leading to a divisive, two-party system. The Act would:

  • Implement ranked-choice voting for congressional elections, lowering the cost of running for office; incentivizing positive and issue-focused campaigns; allowing for healthy competition by decreasing the incumbency advantage; and improving the diversity of our elected officials. 

  • Replace the single-member districts currently used for congressional elections with multi-member districts. Multi-member districts with ranked choice voting creates a proportional representation system associated with higher diversity of elected officials. 

  • Expand the size of the US House of Representatives. The size of the House was frozen in 1929 at 435 despite the House growing in conjunction with the country every decade since 1787. Increasing the number of open-seats will lead to new voices in government, voices more likely to be “younger, more female, and more demographically representative of the United States.”

The Ranked Choice Voting Act

The Ranked Choice Voting Act sponsored by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) requires all House and Senate elections to be conducted with ranked-choice voting, eliminating the need for congressional runoff elections.

The Congress Commission Act

The Congress Commission Act sponsored by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) includes provisions to create a bipartisan commission to analyze the current size of the U.S. House, study alternative voting methods to elect the House, and study the impact of gerrymandering.

In support of the bill, RepresentWomen’s executive director Cynthia Richie Terrell has said, “Processes like this are increasing the number of women elected to office in the 70 or so countries that rank above the United States in women’s representation.”

Will 2021 be Defined by Voting Rights and Electoral Reform?
A February report from the Brennan Center shows 33 states have introduced 165 bills suppressing and restricting the right to vote—up from 35 such bills across 13 states in February of 2020.  (Thomas Cizauskas / Flickr)

Despite centuries of rhetoric saying otherwise, the United States’ government and electoral systems do not work equally for everyone. Our representative democracy is failing in one critical way, it fails to represent everyone; overrepresenting cis, white men at the cost of everyone else.

To ensure “the electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States,” activists must continue to fight for systemic reforms and structural change and legislators must pass bold legislation designed to protect all American’s right to vote and ensure fair and equitable representation for all communities.  

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Maura is RepresentWomen’s outreach and communications coordinator from Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2019 with an honors degree in social anthropology. To hear more from Maura follow her on Twitter, @further_maura.