By Joseph Lord
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) indicated before Congress went on recess that Sen. Jeff Merkley’s (D-Ore.) election reform “For the People” Act would be the top priority for congressional Democrats upon their return. This comes after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) successfully blocked debate on the bill earlier this month. In the evenly divided Senate, Democrats will have a tough battle to pass the legislation as Republicans stand together in unanimous opposition to the bill.
Here are some of its key provisions.
Congressional Superiority Over States
The bill begins with a legal justification of its use of power, saying “Congress finds that the Constitution of the United States grants explicit and broad authority to protect the right to vote, to regulate elections for Federal office, to prevent and remedy discrimination in voting, and to defend the Nation’s democratic process.” In other words, Congress finds that it has the power to regulate federal elections and override state legislature’s prerogative on the establishment and maintenance of voting laws where they conflict with Congress’ vision.
As constitutional backing for this claim, the bill points to Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution which gives states the right to determine the “time, place, and manner” of elections but gives Congress the right to “make or alter” the election laws of each state.
Further, the bill points to the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment. On grounds of alleged voter suppression of minorities, the bill references the 15th Amendment’s prohibition against denying the right to vote on account of race.
Four Social Security Digits Maximum
The bill forbids states from asking for more than the final four digits of a voter’s social security number. While only a handful of states still ask for more than the final four digits, some government research indicates that providing a full social security number can help to reduce duplicate registrations within a town or a state.
Mandated Online Voter Registration
Another provision in the bill requires states to provide the option to register to vote online, on the grounds that “it is the responsibility of the State and Federal Governments to ensure that every eligible citizen is registered to vote.” The bill goes on to explain that “voter registration systems must be updated with 21st Century technologies and procedures.”
‘Automatic Registration’ System & No Penalties For Illegal Immigrants
Another effort to increase voter registration in the bill is “automatic registration,” a system whereby relevant government bodies would share information in order to register people to vote automatically. According to the bill, automatic registration would only be canceled if an individual “affirmatively declines to be registered.”
In the same section, the bill includes several provisions to protect illegal immigrants from prosecution or deportation on several grounds. Among those are the individual reporting that they were automatically registered to vote or failing to make an affirmation of citizenship when being registered to vote.
In another move to increase voter registration, the bill mandates that states permit all eligible citizens to be registered on election or early voting days at official polling places. These same-day registrees would also be allowed to vote immediately after completing their registration.
Registration of Minors to Vote
The bill forbids states from denying voter registration applications from minors 16 or older. However, the bill adds, this section does not require a state to allow people under 18 to vote.
Still, several prominent Democrats have expressed a desire to lower the voting age. In the House, a majority of Democrats (125) voted in favor of an amendment to their own variation of the For the People Act that would lower the voting age to 16, but were defeated when 93 Democrats joined Republicans to reject the amendment. Despite this however, lowering the voting age is likely to remain important to the 125 House progressives who supported the amendment.
Voting for Convicted Felons
At the head of a section that would allow felons and other criminals to vote, the bill reads, “Regaining the right to vote reintegrates individuals with criminal convictions into free society, helping to enhance public safety.”
Again turning to the 15th Amendment for support, the bill argues “State disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities.” The section contends that disenfranchising felons “serves no compelling State interest and hinders their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.”
The section mandates: “The right of an individual who is a citizen of the United States to vote in any election for Federal office shall not be denied or abridged because that individual has been convicted of a criminal offense unless such individual is serving a felony sentence in a correctional institution or facility at the time of the election.” In brief, the only remaining prohibition on criminals voting would apply to criminals currently serving felony sentences in correctional facilities.
Beyond this, the law demands that states notify recently released felons that they “[have] the right to vote in an election for Federal office” and “provide such individual[s] with any materials that are necessary to register to vote in any such election.” Convicted felons actively serving a sentence of probation would be allowed to vote under the bill.
Another section would define all public universities as voter registration agencies. Moreover, these universities would be eligible for federal grants after proving that they promoted voter registration through events like sponsoring voter mobilization and education efforts on campus, registering non-student members of the community around the campus to vote, inviting candidates to speak on campus, and providing rides to polling places to students.
No State ID Required
Another provision of the bill would dramatically increase people’s ability to register to vote without a state-issued ID. The bill would allow student ID cards granted by college campuses to act as proof of identity. Beyond this, it would allow people to register to vote after having signed a sworn statement that they are legally allowed to vote.
This section begins, “The 705,000 District of Columbia residents deserve voting representation in Congress and local self-government, which only statehood can provide.” It then asserts that “there are no constitutional, historical, fiscal, or economic reasons” that Washington should not be granted statehood.
To justify this on constitutional grounds, the bill points toward the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 8 clause that gives Congress the ability to determine the scope of the federal district; while it allows a maximum of ten square miles to be used for the purpose, it does not mandate any minimum size.
Thus, the bill argues that the federal district can and should be reduced in scope to include only the “United States Capitol, the White House, the United States Supreme Court, the National Mall, and the principal Federal monuments and buildings.” Should this be agreed to, Washington would become the 51st state and the size of the federal district would be significantly reduced.
Washington skews extremely Democratic. In 2020, the district voted 93 percent for then-candidate Joe Biden, with only 5.4 percent voting for President Donald Trump. If Washington should be made a state, it would almost surely send a slate of exclusively Democratic representatives and senators to Congress, giving the Democratic party a slight advantage over Senate Republicans.
Federal Control of Redistricting
Another notable section of the bill calls to take redistricting powers away from states. Currently, states are allowed to draw new districts every ten years after the release of census data. The bill claims that this leads to unfair, partisan districting. It also says that this has a disproportionate effect on black voters.
To address this allegation, the bill proposes a congressionally appointed unelected committee take over districting. This committee would have to give majority approval to any redistricting and would effectively put control of redistricting in the hands of Congress rather than state legislatures.
What’s Next for the For the People Act?
Before the recess, Cruz objected to debate of the elections bill as a whole and various other individual provisions. He warned that the bill would “constitute a federal government takeover of elections” and would be “a massive power grab by Democrats.” A critical part of the bill that he objected to was the federal redistricting committee. He argued that the Founders knew that redistricting would be abused. He pointed out that the word “gerrymander” was derived from the skewed districts created by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. Cruz states that although redistricting on partisan grounds is bad, the same would happen in an appointed committee and would be worse since citizens would not be able to vote them out.
He continued: “It would strike down virtually every reasonable voter integrity law in the country, including voter ID laws … [and] prohibitions on ballot harvesting … [both of which are] supported by the overwhelming majority of this country.” He then criticized the provisions of the bill that “would mandate felons be allowed to vote, and would automatically register millions of illegal aliens to vote.”
On these grounds, Cruz objected to the Senate even considering this section of the bill.
When the Senate returns, Democrats will face a very difficult challenge. Republicans—who unanimously oppose the legislation—would likely use the filibuster. Because the Democrats do not have the majority needed to break a filibuster, they would be essentially powerless to stop this. While some have floated the idea of changing filibuster rules to require less votes for cloture, several moderate Democrats, including Biden, are opposed to the idea. The most likely outcome for the bill, then, is to die in Congress without ever reaching Biden’s desk.