House Democrats’ top legislative priority — the H.R. 1 For the People Act of 2021 — is 791 pages of big election changes.
The legislation — a wish list of policies voting rights advocates have urged lawmakers to adopt for years — rethinks the entire voting process: how people register to vote, how ballots are cast and how states conduct elections. The goal is to improve access, particularly for voters of color.
The bill would also create public financing systems for campaigns and ethics rules for candidates.
“This is the next great civil rights bill,” said Elizabeth Hira, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, who helped craft the bill in her previous job with the House of Representatives.
Voting rights advocates say the legislation could help prevent gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws.
Wendy Weiser, vice president of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said H.R. 1 would “thwart” nearly all of the more than 200 restrictive voting proposals her group has identified in 43 states.
The bill stands little chance in the Senate under its current rules: Even though Democrats have a slim majority, at least 10 Republican votes would be needed to pass it.
Republicans argue that the legislation would federalize election administration, and they have worked to mobilize supporters against it.
Here’s what the bill would do:
Make it easier to register (and stay on the rolls)
The bill sets out to make it easier to get on and stay on voter registration rolls.
H.R. 1 would require states to offer online voter registration systems — which 40 states and Washington, D.C., already allow — and same-day voter registration during federal elections. It would also require local officials to automatically register eligible voters.
Eighteen states already have some type of automatic registration, and national implementation could register 50 million new voters, according to the Brennan Center.
The bill would also limit how states can purge voter rolls and require the U.S. Postal Service to facilitate voter registration updates when people fill out change-of-address forms.
The bill would require states to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister when they get their driver’s licenses so they would be able to vote when they turn 18.
“That really matters, because Generation Z and Generation Y collectively are the largest voting bloc. They just surpassed the boomers in the power of their vote,” Hira said.
Make it easier to vote
Several of the bill’s measures aim to make voting easier and quicker.
The bill would require states to allow all voters the option of voting by mail, and it would mandate 15 consecutive days of in-person early voting for at least 10 hours a day.
The bill would stop state lawmakers who are already trying to place more, not fewer, restrictions on mail voting.
States would be required to notify voters seven days before elections if their polling places have changed.
The bill also seeks to force states to address long wait times on Election Day, requiring the allocation of enough resources to ensure that voters don’t wait longer than 30 minutes.
Enfranchise millions of former felons
The bill would restore voting rights for felons who have completed their prison sentences.
Some states bar citizens with felony convictions from voting for some period of time, such as during probation.
The provision could restore voting rights for millions. The Sentencing Project, a group advocating for criminal justice reforms, estimated in 2020 that 5.2 million Americans are disenfranchised by felony convictions. At least 2.2 million of them have completed their sentences in full and would be enfranchised, as well as those completing sentences outside of prison, like probation.
It’s estimated that 900,000 of those disenfranchised former felons live in Florida, the group notes.
“The single greatest impact is in Florida, where voters overwhelmingly voted for a similar policy that got thwarted by legislation,” Weiser said, pointing to a ballot measure that passed in 2018, only to be effectively nullified by state legislators.
The bill would ban district maps that “unduly” favor one party or another as measured by “scientifically accepted measures of partisan fairness.” The bill doesn’t finger a specific formula; several have been used in the past.
Both parties gerrymander, but in 2010, Republicans controlled more state governments and more redistricting processes.
Technological advances in the last two decades have made gerrymandering, the practice of drawing district lines that benefit one party over another, incredibly effective. Critics say it makes it too easy for politicians to pick their voters, when it should be the other way around.
“It could be transformative,” said redistricting expert Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center. “Otherwise, you’re going to see maps rigged in such a way that the result is predetermined.”
A number of states have embraced independent redistricting commissions on their own, but the majority of states still let their legislatures draw the maps.
Because of the 2020 census, all states are due to redraw their maps in the next year. Republicans control the process in more states, and Democrats see changing the rules as a way to more evenly distribute control of the process.
Beef up election cybersecurity
The bill would establish a number of parameters to improve election security: standards for election vendors, rules for communicating potential cyberattacks to federal authorities and requirements for states to protect voter registration databases from cyberattacks.
The bill would also create a security bounty program, which would allow security analysts to be paid for finding security flaws in the election system.
Create public financing (to cut out big donors)
The bill would create a system of public financing for congressional candidates that would match donations under $200 with six times the funding if the candidates agreed to rules that would include not accepting donations over $1,000.
Under the proposed system, $100 donations would get candidates an additional $600 in public funds, for a total of $700.
Candidates would be required to disclose all contributions and return unspent public funds over $100,000.
The bill also seeks to revamp the public financing system for presidential races, which most major-party candidates used until 2008, when Barack Obama opted out of the system. The bill would up the public match for small donations, bar candidates from accepting donations larger than $1,000 and update the system’s rules and restrictions.
The bill would also test out a voucher program in three states that would let voters allocate $25 to the candidate of their choice; the system is based on a similar program in Seattle.