An Absolutely Crucial Voting Reform Measure Just Passed the House. What’s Next?

H.R. 1, the For the People Act, now runs up against a hobbled filibuster in the Senate.

A podium sits before the Capitol steps prior to a Democrat press conference about H.R. 1, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 2021.
A podium sits before the Capitol steps prior to a Democratic press conference about H.R.1 in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 2021. Photo: Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/AP

On Wednesday night, the House of Representatives passed a sweeping package of voting rights and campaign finance reform that, if enacted, would reshape the structure of American politics, expanding the franchise and diminishing the power of wealthy interests. The bill passed not long before midnight by a margin of 220-210, with every Republican voting no, joined by one Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.

H.R. 1, also known as the For the People Act, creates a national system of automatic voter registration, which is expected to bring millions of new voters to the ballot box, and cracks down on voter suppression tactics. Crucially, it mandates nonpartisan redistricting commissions in order to outlaw gerrymandering. Without passage of the legislation, Republicans are well positioned to retake the House of Representatives in 2022 without persuading a single voter to switch parties or turning out new voters, but simply by gerrymandering in the wake of the Trump administration’s rigged census. For that background and the legislation, listen to our February episode of Deconstructed, which focused on the For the People Act, and read Jon Schwarz’s essay on its importance.

The bill tackles the influence of the superrich on politics by creating a “Freedom From Influence Fund.” For every contribution up to $200 received by a candidate in a primary or general election campaign, the fund matches by six times, turning that $200 into $1,200. The contribution is not eligible for a match, however, if the donor gave more than $1,000 to the candidate, an effort to make sure members of Congress are funded by regular people rather than the rich. No taxpayer money is involved: The matching money is to be funded by a surcharge levied on top of fines doled out to those convicted of white-collar financial crimes. The logic is straightforward: Those abusing the democratic system should pay to fix it.

The bill has strong support among Democrats in the Senate, support that is only growing stronger as Republicans unleash a wave of voter suppression laws — particularly in Arizona and Georgia, where Democrats will be defending new gains in the upcoming midterms. While Republicans across the country support the legislation, their elected representatives in Congress are dead set against it. That means passage requires busting or evading the filibuster. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., an advocate of drastically reforming the filibuster to return the Senate to a majority-run institution, said that the idea of a democracy reform exception to the filibuster has been discussed if it appears that full repeal is not in the cards. For more on the filibuster’s prognosis, listen to interviews with Merkley and authors Adam Jentleson and Jacob Hacker.

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