In his first news conference since being elected, President Joe Biden had strong words for the voter-suppression bills sweeping through state legislatures, calling them “sick” and “pernicious.” He was right, but he also knows strong words won’t be enough. So the White House is supporting federal legislation to stem this tide: the For the People Act, which has passed the House — led by Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes — but is unfortunately becoming a political football in the Senate.
Critics are seemingly so afraid of this bill that their allegations against it have run off the rails into outlandish territory: An invitation to rampant voter fraud! People voting from prison! Sixteen-year-olds casting ballots! Taxpayers forced to fund political candidates they despise!
None of this true, so the real question is: What are the critics so afraid of and why? It must be the specter of more women, more shift workers, more Black and brown Americans, more young people and more people with disabilities voting and running for office. Because that is exactly what the act will do. And it will accomplish this by doing two things — reducing the overwhelming influence of big money and wealthy corporations on our politics, and combating voter suppression while expanding access to the ballot.
These things are intimately connected. Deep-pocketed corporate interests have always been invested in denying the ballot to working people, people of color and people who are likely to favor reasonable business regulations but unlikely to favor anti-worker, anti-environment, anti-consumer corporate agendas. Big corporations and the wealthy have a similar interest in keeping such people from running for office, and in our post-Citizens United world, their control of the arena of campaign finance has been strengthened. According to an analysis done by the Brennan Center, in 2016 just 400 political donors gave a combined $1.5 billion — more than five million small donors combined.
The For the People Act would shake up that status quo. It would create a small-donor matching system for campaigns, using money paid in fines by corporations that have broken the law — not taxpayer money, as critics claim. This makes small donors more influential, and it makes non-rich candidates more viable. Right now, if you’re not a billionaire or someone who wants to do the bidding of billionaires and big corporations, your options for financing a competitive campaign are limited; this bill would change that.
It would also take direct aim at the voter suppression the president rightly calls “sick,” tactics including discriminatory voter ID laws, drastic voter roll purges, and harsh reductions in early and absentee voting. These restrictions, the worst since the Jim Crow era, all hit working people and people of color especially hard. Instead of voter suppression, under this new act we would have voter support: automatic voter registration, online registration, restoration of voting rights to returning citizens, and protection for early and absentee voting. There would be a pilot program allowing people with disabilities to register and vote from home. The timing couldn’t be more critical: the Brennan Center has tracked more than 250 voter-suppression bills in more than 40 state legislatures this season alone.
And that’s why it was also encouraging to hear the president say in his news conference that he not only supports the For the People Act, he supports reforming the legislative filibuster — and is willing to “go beyond” mere reform if the filibuster becomes a complete barrier to important bills like this one. In recent weeks it has become painfully obvious that the For the People Act, and much of the rest of the Biden legislative agenda, could be DOA in the Senate unless the now-antiquated filibuster goes the way of spittoons in the chamber. Holdouts against this position are becoming fewer and fewer.
This is truly a historic moment in our country’s history, with a historic set of challenges. Passing the For the People Act is a step that will give more Americans more opportunity to participate in our democracy. It will lead to a domino effect with rapid progress on the issues we care about most, like climate change, expanding affordable health care, protecting workers’ rights and more. It’s time to end the fearmongering and misinformation about this bill. It’s time for the Senate to pass the For the People Act.
Ben Jealous (Twitter: @BenJealous) is president of People For the American Way, former president of NAACP and a former Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland.