“Progress in the right to vote is a hallmark of this nation. Our move to equality, our move to fairness has been inexorable.”
—Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Since the founding of the United States, our history has been marked by the slow movement toward a representative democracy as our definitions of citizen and voter moved beyond the narrow prescripts laid out by the founding fathers more than two centuries ago.
Senator Schumer’s remarks from the Senate hearing on the For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1), highlights the progress the U.S. has made in expanding voting rights and toward equality, but this progress did not happen by chance or in a linear fashion. Instead, it took years, decades and centuries of protest, debate and activism to slowly move toward a true democracy and all progress made was met with opposition and legislative retaliation.
With every expansion to the U.S. electorate came legislative backlash and voter suppression in an attempt to maintain the political status quo.
Following the ratification of the 15th Amendment and Reconstruction, the right to vote for Black men was essentially rolled back through state laws, which included the adoption of literacy tests and poll taxes.
After the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting universal suffrage in name only, the U.S. House of Representatives was capped for the first time, limiting the opportunity for political newcomers like women to run successfully for elected office.
And the highest levels of voter turnout in over a century seen in the 2020 presidential election has been met with more than 250 bills restricting voting and access to the polls across 43 states.
Addressing the regression of voting rights seen in the Jim Crow era took decades and even with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and legal means of voter suppression continue to prevail across the country. The For the People Act passed by the House on March 3, 2021, and now being debated in the Senate, sets out to stop reactionary voter restrictions happening across the U.S. in its tracks, preventing what the Washington Post has called potentially “the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction.”
In a press conference held by the Declaration for American Democracy on Tuesday, March 23, House sponsor Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) called the For the People Act a “legislative package that meets a critical moment.” The sweeping reform package, if passed by the Senate and signed into law, will be the most expansive voting and civil rights legislation in a generation and is already the most consequential anti-corruption bill brought to the floor of the U.S. House.
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Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chair of the Senate Rules Committee hosting the hearing on the For the People Act, said the bill boils down to three major reforms to American political life, “making voting easier, getting big money out of politics, and strengthening ethics rules.” Combined these reforms have the potential to transform U.S. politics and move the country leaps and bounds closer to the representative democracy citizens have been striving for the past 250 years.
The 700+ page bill, outlines numerous tried and true best practices to expand voter registration and ballot access many of which are already being used across the country at the state level, includes provisions to eliminate dark money and empower small grassroots donations, and strengthen congressional and executive ethics. Combined in the For the People Act, these reforms are supported by 83 percent of Americans across both political parties. Many critics are already casting the bill as a progressive wishlist ignoring the broad support from the public and the use of many of these rules being debated have already been passed at the state level with bipartisan support.
In an open-letter supporting H.R. 1, former First Lady Michelle Obama wrote opponents “are hoping to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.” The United States was founded on the belief that power should be in the hands of the people not the politicians, and as definitions of “people” have expanded so too should the laws which continue to hinder full democratic participation. Every generation has been faced with a crisis of democracy, a moment that demands immediate and crucial action; but rarely have activists had a clear-cut, common-sense and holistic solution like the For the People Act.
As many activists, organizations and individuals continue to fight for fair and equitable representation in American politics, full enfranchisement is an essential first step to achieving a diverse and representative government.
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