Democracy Reform at the Top of the Agenda

Commentary
By Myrna Pérez 3-18-2019
Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

On March 8, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “For the People Act,” a historic piece of ethics and election reform legislation that responds to some of the biggest problems our democracy has experienced in recent times. The bill itself is bold and expansive — sweeping even — in the terrain it covers, and in the marker it lays down for what democratic reform should look like.

There can be little doubt that this bill captures the moment we are in. Over the last decade, we have seen a demonstrably high volume of attempts to roll back the right to vote. We had disappointingly low turnout in the 2014 elections, attempts by foreign cyber criminals to infiltrate our election technology, and a presidential election that was impugned by allegations of voting improprieties — even by the winner. But the November 2018 elections seemed to show a turnabout. We had record turnout. We elected new congressional members who pledged to reform our political system. We finally achieved reforms, like ending the permanent disenfranchisement of all persons with felony convictions in Florida — with bipartisan support and more than 60 percent of the Florida vote. Citizens in five states passed ballot initiative to reform redistricting. Michigan and Nevada also passed ballot initiatives that enacted automatic voter registration. Voters voted for voting, and used their votes to say they want other Americans to be able to vote too.

Every Congress has its “HR 1,” the first piece of legislation that the House takes up. For the 116th Congress, its HR 1 was not jobs or anti-terrorism or a border wall. It was democracy reform.

Some of the parts of HR 1 I am most excited about include: making a commitment to revitalizing the Voting Rights Act (which had been severely weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision), restoring voting rights to Americans who are not in prison and yet disenfranchised by state laws because of a criminal conviction in their past, and establishing automatic voter registration at a number of state agencies. But, HR 1 does a lot of other things to expand voting rights, reduce the role of big money in politics, reform the redistricting process, and establish new ethics laws.

And, no one seems to be relying only on Congress to advance democracy reform (which is good because the Senate majority leader has made pretty clear he is not a fan of the legislation). In fact, state lawmakers have been introducing bills that expand at a dizzying speed: there have been at least 589 pro-voter bills have already been introduced across 41 states. This is way higher than what we saw toward the end of the legislative session in 2015 or 2017. And some of those bills stand a good chance at being passed and signed.

We can’t let this loud support for voting rights lull us into a false sense of security. There will continue, as there always has been, politicians and political operatives who are more concerned about their own job security than free, fair, and accessible elections. But, we can send the clear message that we are going to use our right to vote to protect our right to vote. And we are going to fight for our right to vote in the streets, in the court rooms, in the legislatures, and at the ballot box.

Myrna Pérez

Myrna Pérez is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. 

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