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On Tuesday, the Senate Rules Committee held a highly-anticipated markup of S. 1, otherwise known as the For The People Act. The legislation would implement crucial reforms to our elections system, including automatic and same-day voter registration, independent redistricting commissions and a small-donor matching system for congressional elections, making it a top priority for congressional Democrats and fair elections advocates.
The markup, a key part of the legislative process in which lawmakers discuss amendments to proposed legislation before voting on whether to advance the bill, lasted more than eight hours and showcased the contention between Republicans and Democrats about the future of democracy in the U.S. Both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appeared at the markup, a rare event that signaled how highly both sides prioritize this issue. Democrats, including Schumer and Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), made a strong case for S. 1. Klobuchar stated that “we were reminded in a very visceral way on January 6 that it is up to us to protect against threats to our democracy,” and Schumer called the decision to support or oppose the For The People Act a “legacy-defining choice.” Meanwhile, Republicans sitting on the other side of the table criticized every aspect of the bill, falsely calling it a “brazen power grab” by Democrats.
Not every moment of the markup was as contentious as its opening. There were moments that reminded us how government could work, perhaps when lawmakers are elected by the people, not special interests. However, the fiery speeches and intense disagreements give us an accurate picture of the long and hard fight ahead. Understanding the good, the bad, and the ugly of this markup offers some glimmers of hope on the fate of the landmark fair elections legislation.
The Good: The passage of some amendments shows us that compromise is possible.
Most amendments offered in the markup, by senators in both parties, failed with a 9-9 split along partisan lines. These failed amendments included Klobuchar’s manager’s amendment, a bill substitution with changes that reflect feedback from secretaries of state about implementation times for S. 1. But not all amendments met this same fate. The moments of compromise and collaboration between lawmakers provided a moment of hope that perhaps our government could work constructively, after all.
One such instance came when Sen. Shelley Capito (R) of West Virginia raised a concern about the accessibility of the paper ballots the bill requires for the blind community. When she offered an amendment striking the paper ballot requirement, Klobuchar expressed her agreement with Capito’s concerns but did not see the need to strike the entire provision. The two senators’ staffers collaborated on the proposed changes, which then became the Klobuchar-Capito amendment, to improve accessibility to the blind community while preserving the security of paper ballots.
This amendment was not the only compromise that came out of the markup. An amendment by Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, which would create a study about the effects of mail-in voting on active duty military service members, was adopted with a bipartisan vote of 13-5. The committee unanimously voted to approve another amendment by Capito that would allow West Virginia’s pilot e-voting program to continue under the law. And Sens. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), Angus King (I-ME), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) collaborated on a compromise amendment that provides limits for who may collect mail-in ballots from their neighbors and bring them to a drop box or town hall.
The suggestion and passage of constructive amendments reminds us of the intended purpose of a markup — for members of Congress to collaborate in order to improve a bill for everyone. The unanimous “voice votes” on amendments created by legislators of both parties showed that not every issue requires such intense polarization. Perhaps making it easier to vote will one day be a bipartisan issue, too.
The Bad: Republicans struggled to find accurate criticism of S. 1, resorting instead to misinformation.
Despite these compromises, Republicans heavily criticized the bill, offering amendments designed to gut key provisions of the For The People Act and speculating that the bill will keep Democrats in power by rigging all future elections — an untrue and absurd claim.
Republicans’ central argument was this: The For The People Act is a partisan power grab that will keep Democrats in power forever by opening the door to voter fraud, allowing ineligible people to vote, and generally rigging elections for Democrats. The problem with this argument is that S. 1 would do none of those things.
As Schumer noted in his opening statement, in America, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter fraud. Ballot drop boxes, a frequent target of Republican allegations about election security, are just as safe and secure as any other voting method. Contrary to Cruz’s frequent claim that automatic voter registration (AVR) will register millions of ineligible people to vote, AVR does not register noncitizens. In fact, the bill text explicitly talks about registering “eligible citizens” to vote, and AVR helps states keep their voter rolls more accurate and secure. And finally, everything in the bill, from stopping partisan gerrymandering to making the FEC work for everyone, will benefit Republican voters as much as Democrats. Republican voters know this, too, which is why the bill is popular with voters across the political spectrum.
One particularly bizarre Republican strategy was to argue that all of the recent tactics Republican members of Congress and state legislators have been using to benefit their own party in elections is, instead, what would happen under the For The People Act. In his opening statement, McConnell said, “we all learned early in life if you can write the rules you can win the game,” a sentiment he knows better than anyone, having used his position repeatedly over the years to obstruct legislation and pack the federal courts for years to come. Cruz followed up on this tactic, calling the For The People Act “Jim Crow 2.0,” a common refrain used by Black voting rights activists to describe the more than 350 voter suppression laws being considered and adopted by GOP-controlled state legislatures in the wake of the 2020 election. Even more strangely, Cruz, on multiple occasions, mentioned the possibility of voters having their political power diluted, something Republicans accomplished with surgical precision by gerrymandering competitive districts in states with large Black populations, such as North Carolina.
Voters may see through this “Uno Reverse Card” argument strategy, but the false claims introduced by Republicans throughout the committee meeting underscore a larger, scarier truth: that Republicans will do everything in their power to stop the For The People Act’s passage.
The Ugly: Despite the eight hours of revisions and arguments in the markup, there is still not a single Republican that supports S. 1.
Eight hours and 45 minutes after the markup began, the Rules Committee voted on whether to advance the bill to the Senate Floor. The vote, unsurprisingly, tied along partisan lines — all nine Democrats voted aye, all nine Republicans voted nay. This vote technically means that the measure stays in committee, but Schumer will have the power to bring S. 1 to the floor later anyway.
The tied vote, though, shows how unified the Republicans are in opposition to the For The People Act. Even as Democrats compromised, argued, and even pleaded with Republicans to support the bill, and even as Republicans offered amendments to the bill, the markup did not make them any more likely to support the bill at 7:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday than they were at 10 a.m, before the markup began.
Republicans’ opposition to the legislation is not because Democrats aren’t compromising enough. When Cruz proposed an amendment to get rid of the public financing provisions in the bill entirely, King asked him directly, “If this amendment and others that you suggest are adopted, would you vote for this bill?” Cruz gave a lengthy response — including that the amendments “might conceivably convince some Republicans to support it” — but to win his support, “it would have to be a fundamentally different bill.” Cruz’s answer, then, can be distilled into one word: “No.”
This answer, as The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman argues, is one of the strongest arguments against the filibuster to date. If there is no change that Democrats can make in order to win Republican support on an issue as important as democracy, then the only option is for S. 1 to pass without Republicans on board. At this point, there is no hope of getting any Republicans to support these common-sense democracy reforms. This is not because of substantial issues with the bill, it is because Republicans from Congress to state legislatures are writing the rules to win the game. Klobuchar was exactly right: “the stakes could not be higher.”
If Democrats eliminate the filibuster and pass the For The People Act, ensuring a healthier and more representative democracy, the moments of compromise over polarization we witnessed could be the norm. If they fail to act, the polarization, misinformation and unrepresentativeness we see in the halls of Congress will only get worse.
Kate Travis is a Fellow at Equal Citizens, and is the co-author of a weekly newsletter about the For The People Act.