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Why some Democrats are quietly unhappy with the House’s big voting rights bill

There’s a debate over whether some of the For the People Act’s provisions are misconceived.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference to discuss HR 1, the For the People Act, in Washington, DC, on March 3.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call Inc via Getty Images

Democrats have publicly united around a legislative response to Republican efforts to roll back voting access in various states — a bill called the For the People Act.

Known as HR 1 in the House, where it passed in early March with only a single Democratic defection, and S 1 in the Senate, where it’s co-sponsored by every Democrat except West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, it’s a bill that Democrats and allied outside advocates argue is urgently necessary to save the country not only from voter suppression, but also from gerrymandering and the malign influences of big and dark money in politics.

“If our democracy doesn’t work, then we have no hope — no hope — of solving any of our other problems,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said last month. “We will fight and fight and fight to get this done legislatively. Failure is not an option.”

Beneath this public unity, however, some in Democratic and electoral policy circles have misgivings about the bill, however well-intentioned it might be. Jessica Huseman recently wrote at the Daily Beast about a set of objections to one section of the bill from election administrators, who said, under cover of anonymity, that it contains various poorly written and confusing requirements that could be difficult or even impossible to implement. (Democratic aides say they’re working on addressing those concerns.)

More broadly, in conversations with Democratic campaign professionals, advocates, and outside experts, I heard conceptual criticisms that other parts of the bill are misconceived, could lead to unintended consequences, or were being oversold.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speak at a press conference on HR 1 on March 10, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Additionally, while Republicans have argued that the bill’s changes would ensure Democrats win practically every election, some experts find this absurd, and tend to think that (with the exception of redistricting reforms) its likely partisan impacts are being far overstated. This undercuts a GOP argument against the bill, but it also flies in the face of Democrats’ messaging that passing the bill is urgently necessary to prevent the GOP from stealing many future elections.

For now, these complaints are academic — because the For the People Act isn’t going anywhere under current Senate rules. No Republican supports it, so it can’t move past the filibuster. Even if Democrats are successful in changing the rules (perhaps with making a special exemption for voting bills), Manchin has only said he supports certain provisions of it (remaining conspicuously silent on major parts of the bill). He’s also said he believes voting reform should be bipartisan, which this bill isn’t.

Still, considering intense activist pressure for Senate rules changes and for passing this bill specifically, these constraints may not be around forever. The details of the For the People Act could eventually prove very important, so it’s worth grappling with some of the debates about it that have been unfolding behind the scenes.

What is the For the People Act?

Given President Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election results and a swath of new voting restriction laws proposed in Republican states this year, concern for the future of democracy among Democrats is high, and many are naming the For the People Act as the solution.

Yet the bill has very little to do with Trump’s post-election actions, such as trying to block certification of results in states and getting politicians to overturn the outcome (it was largely written before those actions). The bill also doesn’t address Republicans’ current advantage in the Senate or the Electoral College. And it doesn’t revamp the Voting Rights Act; Democrats are handling that in a separate bill, to be named after the late Rep. John Lewis, which they are still working on.

The nearly 800-page For the People Act does do a whole lot of things — far too many to list here — but it’s mostly oriented around trying to help solve five somewhat distinct problems that Democrats and “good government” reformers have long worried about: (1) voting accessibility, (2) gerrymandering of the US House of Representatives, (3) the influence of big and dark money on elections, (4) election security, and (5) ethics in the federal government.

The latter two problems there don’t really redound to either party’s benefit at the ballot box, but Democrats view the first three — voter suppression, gerrymandering, and massive or secret election spending — as distortions of democracy that specifically give Republicans an unfair electoral advantage. Meanwhile, Republicans tend to agree that these practices help them electorally, so naturally they are keenly interested in preserving them.

The bill is in a sense the product of a longstanding de facto alliance between Democrats and civil rights groups as well as avowedly nonpartisan good-government nonprofit groups, such as the Brennan Center for Justice and Common Cause. It contains many reform proposals that have been floating around these circles for years, many of which were introduced as bills in previous congressional sessions (one House aide estimates that 60 separate bills have been folded into the For the People Act).

Now that Democrats control both Congress and the White House, advocates and their congressional allies see a rare chance to get many of the ideas they’ve long supported enacted into law. And Democrats rely on these outside groups to help craft the details, in part due to longstanding relationships, in part because they have institutional memory about policy that high-turnover Democratic groups often don’t, and in part due to a genuine belief in their shared interests and mission.

What’s the strategy around passing this bill?

Arguments for majorly rethinking the For the People Act have generally been viewed as unwelcome and unhelpful by the phalanx of outside advocates backing it. The bill is loaded up with many measures that are of wildly varying significance, but supporters insist that it’s all or nothing — using Democrats’ deeply felt moral urgency of combating voter suppression as the heart of the messaging to pass a long list of other changes they’ve long wanted.

And while Democratic aides involved with the bill say they remain open to technical and practical suggestions, they aren’t at this point interested in a broad overhaul of the bill — they’re interested in trying to pass it. They argue that fundamental conceptual criticism will only weaken the effort and help squander a rare chance to pass major reforms. “This is too important to let very smart people with very big thoughts obfuscate the challenge of legislating,” a House Democratic aide told me.

So how will they pass it? The strategy has been, first, to brand the bill as crucial to saving democracy, and second, to respond to the inevitable GOP filibuster by pressuring moderate Democrats to support a Senate rules change to allow the bill through. This could entail eliminating or gutting the 60-vote requirement for passing legislation, or it could mean crafting a narrow exception from the 60-vote threshold for voting rights bills.

This plan does not currently seem on the verge of success. When asked by CNN in late March whether a Republican blockade of the bill would spur him to gut the 60-vote threshold, Manchin said, “No, it will not, no, no,” adding that people who think it would “are reading” him “totally wrong.”

Manchin also sent out a statement saying that while he supported certain specific things in the bill — a list that notably omitted many of its major provisions, like automatic voter registration and redistricting reform — it was very important to him that voting reform be bipartisan.

“Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits, but will only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government,” he said. Some supporters of the bill profess optimism about Manchin’s statement, though, on the grounds that he said some reforms are necessary and that he didn’t outright declare the bill dead.

In the Senate, the voting rights bill is co-sponsored by every Democrat except Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), pictured here.
Jim Watson/AFP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Yet Manchin is not the only Democrat who is reluctant to change the filibuster rules. And there is talk that, even though every Senate Democrat except Manchin has co-sponsored the For the People Act, its true support may be less solid. So long as the bill can’t actually pass under current Senate rules, co-sponsorship and even votes in favor of it can be cheap talk — a way to signal allegiance with the cause and its supporters, while being fully aware the consequences of the bill won’t materialize.

Some supporters of reform have worried that advocates’ all-or-nothing approach will likely lead to nothing, and have encouraged a more scaled-back bill. UC Irvine law professor Rick Hasen made this argument in the Washington Post a few weeks ago. The current bill is “presented as the one shot [for reform], and I don’t think that’s true,” Hasen told me. “Number one, I don’t think it has a realistic shot; number two, I don’t think it’s the only thing that could be done.” Hasen suggests scaling down the bill and making an effort for bipartisanship — thinking that, after that likely fails, the case for a rules change would seem stronger to Manchin and others.

Still, it’s hard to say there’s an obviously superior alternative plan for passage. At the end of the day, any reform either needs 10 Republican senators (unlikely on anything that touches the partisan-charged issues of voter restrictions, gerrymandering, and money in politics) or it needs Manchin and the rest of Senate Democrats to agree to change Senate rules. Disagreements on strategy essentially boil down to differing theories on how the Democratic moderates can best be moved — but no one really knows the answer to that, if there is one, just yet.

What would the electoral impact of the For the People Act be?

Most attention and messaging around the For the People Act has focused on its voting rights provisions. The bill would enact a series of changes aimed at making it easier for more people to vote, including requiring automatic voter registration and same-day registration, requiring at least two weeks of early voting, restoring voting rights to all felons who have completed their terms of incarceration, and attempting to limit voter roll purges. These provisions are why the bill is touted as crucial to defending democracy.

But there has long been a strain of thinking among quantitative analysts that the impact of modern voting restrictions on election outcomes is overhyped. Vox’s German Lopez has repeatedly written about studies showing that voter ID laws end up having little impact on who wins. Nate Cohn came to a similar conclusion about vote accessibility in a recent New York Times article. “There’s a real — and bipartisan — misunderstanding about whether making it easier or harder to vote, especially by mail, has a significant effect on turnout or electoral outcomes,” Cohn wrote. “The evidence suggests it does not.”

Democratic electoral professionals stressed that increased voter access is a good thing and that they think voter suppression policies can have racist motivations regardless of the magnitude of their effects. But some told me they agree that the partisan impact of these changes is likely being overhyped. One electoral professional estimated the For the People Act’s voting rights provisions would make a “0.1 percent, 0.2 percent tops” difference in vote outcomes overall.

Another pointed to the changing nature of the two parties’ coalitions. College-educated white voters (a very high-propensity voting group) have stampeded toward Democrats in recent years, while Trump had huge success among low-propensity rural or non-college-educated white voters. In 2020, Trump made gains among Latino voters (a traditionally low-propensity demographic) as well. It’s no longer so clear that policies to make voting marginally more difficult will hurt the Democratic coalition more.

President Trump supporters protest outside the Clark County Election Department in North Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 7, 2020.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“I think people are really overstating what you can actually hope and expect from this,” this electoral professional told me. “It’s so hard, because I understand how deeply some people feel about it. But it is really hard to look at the weight of the literature at this point and conclude that any of this is going to dramatically change the partisan landscape beyond the macro trends that exist more broadly.”

Expressing this opinion is a quick way to become extremely unpopular in Democratic circles. When I asked congressional staffers and advocates for rebuttals to this argument, some responses included intimations that the very premise is revealing of racism. Some dispute that the analysis is correct; others say that if it is, it’s probably only because organizers have done such a good job in response to these challenges, and that might not be sustainable over the longer term. (Some research has found that attention on the issue of voter suppression can produce a countermobilization effect among targeted populations.)

Even if the effect is quite small, much can hinge on extremely close elections. The final certified tally of the disputed Florida election in 2000 gave the win to George W. Bush by a 0.009 percentage point margin. More recently, if David Perdue’s margin had improved by 0.27 percentage points in the first-round Georgia Senate election in November, he would have averted a runoff contest with Jon Ossoff, and Republicans would still control the Senate.

But the most common response in this line of questioning is that the electoral impact of voting restrictions is irrelevant. “Our desire and the need to prevent vote suppression should be completely irrespective of the desire for any election outcome and whether it would benefit any political party,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s democracy program.

Of course, if the partisan impact of increased voter participation isn’t so clear, that would also undercut one of the main Republican talking points against the bill — that it’s a “power grab” that could throw elections to Democrats for years to come.

A similar dynamic is at play around the bill’s campaign finance reforms. Modern Democratic thinking on money in politics was crafted in the years after the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, when the party blamed big and dark money for Republicans’ election victories. But in the Trump era, Democrats proved more than able to compete with Republicans in all types of election spending — big money, dark money, and small donors. Reforming money in politics could be a worthwhile thing to do in and of itself, but it’s simply not the case that Democrats regularly lose elections nowadays because they are outspent.

Are the gerrymandering reforms in the For the People Act sufficient?

Critiques that the impact of the For the People Act is being overstated tend to make an exception for one issue: gerrymandering and control of the US House.

Gerrymandering, if carried out effectively, can clearly be enormously impactful and lock in a major advantage for one party, particularly given modern technology and polarization of where people live by geography. A new round of gerrymandering is coming this year and next, with Republicans well-positioned in key states to expand the edge they already have. (Democrats of course gerrymander too, but they simply control fewer state governments than the GOP in both the 2011 and 2021 redistricting cycles, giving them fewer opportunities to do so.)

The For the People Act would make huge changes to redistricting rules. It would require states to redistrict through independent commissions, taking that process out of legislators’ hands. The catch is that many of the bill’s supporters privately concede it is almost surely too late to set up those commissions for the 2021-’22 redistricting cycle.

So, this time around, what would likely matter most are new standards the bill sets for what will count as illegal partisan gerrymandering. If state legislature majorities produce maps that violate these standards, their opponents can sue — and the matter will be sent to federal judges to sort out.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who was a prominent voting rights advocate, speaking to reporters on HR 1 on January 4, 2019.
Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There are two main criticisms I heard about this part of the bill. The first is that the current language does not provide clear instructions to judges about what counts as an illegal partisan gerrymander. The bill says a certain level of “partisan bias” in a state’s House delegation (more than one seat for most states, more than two seats for the biggest states) is unacceptable, but does not specifically explain how that should be measured.

Indeed, a person involved in talks over the bill told me that “the language currently in the bill reflects a hasty effort” to toughen standards and “doesn’t necessarily reflect a lot of thinking and wisdom and discussion.” Further changes are expected as the bill moves through the Senate. Specifically, a future version of the bill will likely specify which past election results should be used to calibrate this “partisan bias.”

Separately, Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center, told me, “Everything I’m hearing is that people on the Hill understand that it needs to be — not changed, so much as written in a way that it’s more of an instruction to courts.”

A second criticism, though, is that the bill needs a broader rethink to surmount Democrats’ disadvantages in the redistricting process. That’s why some reform supporters have advocated for using proportionality as the standard for a legal map — clearly setting the standard for a fair map so that if, say, a party’s House candidates gets 60 percent of the votes in a state, they should get about 60 percent of the seats.

But Democratic House aides emphasized that a broad change to this part of the bill is extremely unlikely — because the politics of redistricting reform have been tricky enough for House Democrats to grapple with already. That’s both because reforms could end up redistricting some House members out of their jobs, and because the party’s slim majority means almost every Democrat’s vote is necessary. (For instance, in Massachusetts, all nine members of Congress are Democrats, even though about one-third of the state voted for Trump in 2020. A proportional standard would put some of their seats at risk.)

The bill’s drafters have also had to grapple with reluctance from some in the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whose members fear the drive for partisan balance will result in the dilution of the safe majority-minority districts they currently represent. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi was the sole Democrat to vote against HR 1 and cited the redistricting provision as one reason why. This is an intrinsically tough issue for the party to deal with, because if many Black voters are packed into just a few districts in a state, fewer Democratic voters will remain to balance out Republican voters in that state’s other districts.

The bill would clearly be an improvement on the status quo for partisan gerrymandering (there is currently no federal restriction on it as a practice). But overall, it’s far from clear that even an improved version would result in a situation where a Democratic national House popular vote win means the Democrats would control the House.

And this, of course, also cuts against the Republican talking point that the bill is written by Democrats to win elections in their favor. A bill written to give Democrats the maximal electoral advantage would look quite different. “I don’t think you should regard the For the People Act as trying to solve Democrats’ geography problem,” Li said. “That is not what the goal of this bill should be.”

Would the bill’s small donor matching fuel extremism?

The most prominent campaign finance reform change in the For the People Act is small donor matching. If a federal candidate agrees to forswear big money (not accepting more than $1,000 from any one person), then all their donations of under $200 will be matched by six times that amount in federal funds. Since Democrats currently dominate with small donors, this probably would help the party on the money front in general elections — though one possible drawback is that public financing itself polls quite poorly.

But since voting in general elections is so driven by partisanship, the greatest impact of supercharged small donations would likely be in primaries, which often feature multiple little-known candidates trying to distinguish themselves. Candidates who can inspire passionate followings — viewed as charismatic communicators by those who like them, and dangerous demagogues by those who don’t — would benefit most.

No Republican lawmaker supports the For the People Act, which means it isn’t going anywhere under the current Senate rules.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“There is a risk that making public funding proportional to small donations will accelerate polarization and extremism even further,” NYU law professor Richard Pildes recently wrote. “Research suggests small donors are more ideologically extreme than average citizens and donate to ideologically more extreme candidates.”

Accordingly, the New York Times’s Nicholas Fandos and Michael Wines wrote that some in the Democratic establishment fear this will empower far-left primary challengers to go after incumbents. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, candidates who make identity-based appeals to base voters tend to raise far more from small donors — meaning this reform could conceivably end up empowering the Trumpist wing of the party.

Supporters of small donor financing say there’s no certainty that will end up happening (they point out that the small donor matching system will be optional). Some also argue that even if these effects come to pass, that would be preferable to the current campaign finance regime, which benefits candidates who spend lots of time trying to raise big checks from wealthy people and PACs — and who are already networked in those circles.

“Even if you get more candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene, I still think we expand access to the Jamaal Bowmans and Cori Bushes of the world,” says another House Democratic aide involved in the bill.

Still, well-meaning reforms can have unintended consequences. This change seems designed to weaken the influence of big Republican funders like the Koch family, as well as big money in both parties. But those alarmed by Trump’s efforts to overturn the election might wonder whether supercharging the power of his base in GOP primaries is really the best way to preserve democracy.

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