Democrats Should Ignore Calls For A Skinnier For The People Act

There’s no reason to believe a smaller, less effective bill would stand any better shot at gaining any Republican votes.
US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, speaks during a press conference at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021. - Donald Trump faced one of the darkest days of his presidency Wed... US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, speaks during a press conference at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021. - Donald Trump faced one of the darkest days of his presidency Wednesday with the US Congress poised to certify Joe Biden's White House victory and Democrats on track to take control of the Senate with a pair of stunning upset victories in Georgia. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

The Republican Party is radicalizing against democracy and majority rule. 

Georgia’s recently passed anti-voter law is just the beginning. Some 361 different efforts to restrict voting have been introduced in 47 states, some of which have already passed. Heritage Action, alongside its partners in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), are pushing a $24 million effort to install new barriers to the ballot box in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin — eight competitive states, many of them gerrymandered to assure GOP control even when the party’s candidates win fewer votes.

Another decade of GOP dominance over redistricting in Georgia, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and elsewhere means that Republicans will be favored to win back the U.S. House in November 2022, even if Democrats, as in 2020, win millions more votes nationwide. The U.S. Senate map looks promising for the GOP as well. And if Republicans can win governorships next year in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, lawmakers will almost certainly change the way presidential electors are awarded.

Democrats currently hold a tightrope of a trifecta in Washington, D.C.. It could be another decade before they have this opportunity again. As these assaults against voting rights and longstanding democratic norms continue to mount, the question is simple: What are Democrats going to do about it?

Two robust proposals are currently under consideration in Congress and are gaining momentum. 

The For The People Act would, among other things, end gerrymandering through independent redistricting commissions, curtail the worst voter suppression tactics, create nationwide automatic and same-day voter registration, and establish equal access to early voting periods and vote-by-mail in every state. The bill would also radically change the way our campaign finance system works, empowering small donors through public financing of House elections, and would increase the transparency of who lobbies Congress.  

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act meanwhile, also known as House Bill 4, would restore the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which were eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2013 decision that ended “pre-clearance,” and opened the floodgates for states like Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Arizona (and others with a history of racist voter suppression written into its election laws) to make election-related changes without any federal supervision. 

We need both bills. The gathering storms in state capitols, the rapid approach of the next redistricting cycle, and the beyond-cynical willingness of national Republicans to exploit a “Big Lie” about nonexistent “voter fraud” in the 2020 election as a pretext for Orwellian “election integrity” measures should have everyone’s alarm bells ringing.

The For The People Act goes on the offense for all Americans. We need to establish national standards on early voting, mail-in voting and voter registration so that it is just as easy to register and cast a ballot in Mississippi as it in Oregon or Colorado. We need national protections against gerrymandering and discriminatory voter roll purges that disproportionately affect Black and Latino citizens. And democracy must always be protected against high-dollar donors who seek to twist it to their own ends behind closed doors. The John Lewis Act, meanwhile, plays crucial defense against state legislatures that continue to show their willingness to entrench themselves in office at the expense of voters of color and create an enduring and un-American minority rule.

Bafflingly, after the For The People Act passed the House earlier this month — with near unanimous Democratic support — some have called to narrow its scope. Instead of going for the entire package necessary to rescue American democracy, pundits argue that Democrats should go for something simpler, less complicated, and more likely to make its way through the Senate. Multiple visions have been offered for what a skinny bill would look like. Most center around some voter protections and narrow gerrymandering reform. 

But you don’t throw a drowning person a deflated life vest and hope it’s enough. The assaults on our democracy have been so multifaceted that our response must be equally as broad-based. Just as importantly: There’s no reason to believe a smaller, less effective bill would stand any better shot at gaining any Republican votes.

This is no time for Democrats to compromise with themselves. After all, these reforms are popular with the American people. Why drop ethics reform? Or greater transparency on campaign finance? A leaked phone call of a Koch Network strategy session, obtained by the New Yorker this week, found frustrated conservative activists conceding to each other that even conservative voters supported these reforms when they were read a neutral description of them. Preventing billionaires from buying our politics? “That is a winning message,” the Koch researcher tells his colleagues.

Bipartisan action would be better on issues so central to our democracy. Yet if that’s not forthcoming — and zero Senate Republicans appear willing to sign onto the For The People Act right now — Democrats need to act. If the choice is preserving the filibuster, which enshrines minority rule, or reforming it to advance a popular fair elections package that will protect us all from an increasingly authoritarian GOP, the choice should be clear. 

If Senate filibuster holdouts want a return to bipartisanship, these bills are a must. It’s the redistricting reforms included in the For The People Act, and the assurances of automatic and same day voter registration, that might re-incentivize Republicans to talk to everyone again, rather than fear a radical base in their safe districts. 

We need fewer prognosticators predicting what moderate Democrats might be willing to accept, and more Americans willing to fight for what is right and critically needed. 

President Biden understands this. Of all the major Democratic presidential hopefuls in 2020, he stood out as the one for whom voting rights and democracy reform may have been the least central to his campaign. But as he has watched the Republicans play an aggressive, anti-democracy hand, Biden appears fully alert to the danger. “We have a moral and Constitutional obligation to act,” Biden said, as the Georgia measures advanced last week. The time for action is now. The news from Georgia should remind us that time is also growing short.


Adam Eichen is the Executive Director of Equal Citizens and co-author of “Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want.”

David Daley is the author of the national best-seller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.

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