Defending Democracy: Final Passage of ‘For the People’ Act Still Entirely Within Reach

Updated June 24 at 2:15 p.m. PT.

The For the People Act—an urgent bill to transform U.S. democracy—will change how we draw congressional districts, protect who can vote, and expand who can run for office. Our voices are vital to the bill’s prospects and its chance to transform America’s future. 

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A NYC voting rights march in December 2011. (Michael Fleshman / Flickr)

On Tuesday, June 22, the Senate Democratic leadership attempted to bring to the floor for debate America’s next great civil rights bill, the For the People Act. While the motion to proceed to debate failed this time around, falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster, this vote is only the start of a summer of procedural maneuvering, including future votes on evolving versions of the bill. Indeed, despite some reports of its demise, the For the People Act is very much alive—and for the first time, final passage of this urgent, necessary bill to transform our democracy is entirely within reach.

What’s more, “civil rights” in this instance isn’t just about beating back voter suppression across the nation, essential as that is. It’s about creating lasting structural change that shifts the balance of political power toward the American people. Our original democracy, by design, excluded people from participation based on their sex, skin color and wealth. Originally, only white, male property owners could vote and over time, legal discrimination based on status persisted, creating inequities in representation even today.

Critically, the For the People Act offers concrete, structural change to our democracy to repair some of those exclusionary harms. By changing how we draw congressional districts, by protecting who can vote, and expanding who can afford to run for office—the bill is our best chance to build an America that actually reflects and represents all Americans—an inclusive democracy long promised, but not yet realized.   

States Throughout the Nation Are Rushing To Pass Discriminatory Voter Suppression Laws

Our nation is at an inflection point. The 2020 election produced the highest voter turnout in over a century but also spread the “Big Lie” and its racist myths about voter fraud, which cast doubt on the validity of minorities’ votes in order to allege, falsely, that the presidential election was stolen. This Big Lie drove a violent attack on the U.S Capitol and has been used to justify an unprecedented wave of restrictive state-level voting laws—389 bills in 48 states as of May 2021, many of which disparately impact voters of color.

For the People Act Would Counteract Much of the Restrictive Voting Legislation Being Introduced and the Upcoming Wave of Extreme Gerrymandering

Voting rights opponents have created a seemingly overwhelming tide of legislation that amounts to the worst voter suppression effort since Jim Crow. But the For the People Act provides hope: This single bill would beat back the vast majority of restrictions proposed in the states. It would create a minimum standard across the nation so states cannot selectively choose who has unfettered access to the ballot. We need not fight 48 separate fights across 48 states. Instead, the For the People Act is a single federal solution that simply lets Americans vote, freely and fairly.

Further, the bill will ban partisan gerrymandering, holding off the wave of extreme partisan gerrymandering that is likely to take place later this year. The bill makes also makes the redistricting process more transparent and accessible for citizen participation and creates extra protections for communities of color.

Paired with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to defend against discriminatory voter laws, both bills must pass to protect the right to vote.

For the People Act Brings Everyday Americans to the Table as Leaders

In addition to picking up the historic work of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in advancing equal access to the ballot, the For the People Act contains visionary reforms to shape America’s future. For a truly inclusive democracy, we must address not only who can vote, but also who has the resources to run for office to represent the people.

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A group of children gather around a sign and booth to register voters in the early 1960s. (Kheel Center / Cornell University)

Due to the high cost of campaigns, personal wealth and wealthy networks are too often a prerequisite to running for office. Consequently, a small group of elites, largely white and male, hold power as gatekeepers to decide which candidates are deemed “electable.”

This has real effects in campaigns: In 2018, large donors gave Black women candidates barely one third of what they gave to their other female counterparts. And current campaign finance law disadvantages everyday Americans like working parents—who are often women bearing extra burdens of domestic care even while running for office. Under today’s rules, a male candidate can use his campaign funds to rent a tuxedo, but if a female candidate wants to use her campaign funds to pay a babysitter, she must receive special permission from the Federal Election Commission.  

This bias in the current system has led to a government that does not reflect everyday Americans. Today’s Congress is the most diverse in American history—yet even so it is 77 percent white and 73 percent male. In the last Congress, fewer than 5 percent of all members reported ever working a blue-collar job; the majority of senators and representatives are millionaires. In the history of Congress, only 10 people have ever given birth while serving.

Diversifying who can run for office doesn’t just matter for its own sake—it also matters because whoever gets a seat at the table gets to dictate which people’s priorities get lifted up and which get ignored. When we recognize that most of our leaders simply do not reflect everyday Americans and their lived experience, it quickly becomes evident why basic issues many of us agree must be addressed to advance society—including affordable child care, paid family leave, climate change, jobs, education, and housing—have not been prioritized by our leaders. 

With the For the People Act, we have an unprecedented opportunity to repair the infrastructure of democracy so that all Americans, regardless of race, gender and wealth, can participate as voters and leaders. This bill protects every American’s right to vote against those who would exclude them, gives candidates without wealthy networks a way to fund their campaigns with the power of small donors, and it reforms rules that especially disadvantage women, people of color, and women of color running for office. The For the People Act is our best chance to have our leaders actually reflect the true makeup of our nation, prioritizing the needs of ordinary citizens.

A Majority of Republican, Democratic and Independent Voters Support the Bill’s Reforms

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A Count Every Vote rally in Washington D.C., on November 4, 2020. (Elvert Barnes / Flickr)

The vote on the Senate floor signals that passing this bill is more possible right now than ever before. (The first iteration of the bill in the previous Congress passed the House, but died in the Senate.) This bill has bipartisan support nationally: Polling shows that a majority of Republican, Democratic and Independent voters support the bill’s policies. Political leaders must now come into alignment.

Fortunately, the nation’s top officials in the House, the Senate, and the White House have made passing the For the People Act a priority. They have been listening to the people’s clamor for reform, and that momentum is keeping the bill alive and in play. At every phase of the Senate’s deliberations this summer, we must continue to rally for the For the People Act. Our voices are vital to the bill’s prospects and its chance to transform America’s future. 

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About

Elizabeth Hira is a policy counsel and Spitzer fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and lead author of the recent report "Equity for the People: S.1/H.R. 1 and the Fight for an Inclusive Democracy." Previously, Hira served as a lawyer on the Hill, first on then-Senator Kamala Harris’s legislative team, then on the U.S. Committee on House Administration, where she helped to craft the original iteration of H.R. 1 for passage in the 116th Congress.