The For the People Act Unpacked
In early June, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that he would bring the For the People Act to the floor of the Senate for a vote by the end of the month. The legislation, referred to as S. 1 and H.R. 1, was one of congressional Democrats’ top priorities for the first year of the Biden administration and would have constituted the largest overhaul and strengthening of voting rights in America since the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
However, hopes for the bill’s passage dimmed when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced he would not support the bill, likely denying Democrats of their slim 50-50 majority and making passage almost impossible, as no Republicans had planned to support the election reform legislation.
So what’s next in the fight for voting rights? We’ll walk through what the For the People Act would do, why it seems to have lost Manchin’s vote and where voting rights advocates can look next for the vital reforms needed to secure our democracy before the next election.
What would the For the People Act do, exactly?
The over 800-page For the People Act consists of four sections, and each section tackles a different component of the election process: voting access, redistricting, campaign finance and ethics law.
We’ll focus on voting access for now, as it most directly addresses the slate of voter suppression efforts that Republican legislatures across the country have advanced this year. The legislation sets a “floor” of sorts for voting rights in federal elections, establishing national standards that every state would have to follow in the administration of their elections for Congress and the presidency.
These provisions include:
- The establishment of nationwide automatic voter registration, wherein eligible voters would have to opt out instead of opt in to register. The bill also requires all states to offer same-day registration for federal elections.
- Requiring every state to create an online voter portal for registration, cancellation, correction and more.
- Requiring states with voter ID laws to allow voters without identification to instead sign a sworn statement of their identity, allowing them to cast their ballot.
- Requiring 15 days of early voting for all federal elections for at least 10 hours a day.
- Establishing no-excuse mail-in voting for all federal elections. States would be required to allow any eligible voter to vote by mail.
- Requiring pre-paid postage on return envelopes for mail-in voting.
- Banning voter roll purges.
What would these provisions mean for the current slate of voting laws?
Republicans in state legislatures have proposed 389 restrictive voting bills since the start of the 2021 session — 22 have been signed into law already. The For the People Act, if passed, would nullify much of this legislation, protecting voters from various Republican tactics that encroach on their access to the ballot box and restrict their right to vote. The “floor” set by the landmark Act would prevent hundreds of Republican bills from being enacted.
Notably, 34 Republican bills proposed this year in 15 states attempt to limit early voting. One of the Act’s provisions would require 15 days of early voting, mandating this standard in every state and make it harder — but by no means impossible — for Republican-controlled legislatures to pass suppressive legislation. Additionally, the Act’s no-excuse vote-by-mail provision would ban states from infringing on voters’ ability to cast a mail-in ballot in all federal elections; a safe, reliable voting method that 198 bills in 41 states are currently attempting to restrict.
What’s more, the Act would ban voter roll purging and limit the valid reasons election administrators can use to justify removing a registered voter from the rolls. If enacted, this provision would have a massive impact, as over 50 bills in nearly 20 states proposed new voter roll purges this year — a key tactic taken by Republicans to lower turnout. And, 32 state legislatures have already pursued stricter voter ID laws this year, the intent of which would be effectively nullified by the proof-of-identity alternatives outlined in the voter ID provision. Overall, the voting access standards set by the Act would have sweeping effects on voting rights across the nation. Without question, it would protect voters in federal elections from the most common and effective Republican voter suppression methods and significantly improve access to the ballot box.
What is the bill’s path to passage?
The Act passed the U.S. House in early March, which was the second time the legislation passed the chamber. This time around, the Democratic trifecta in both chambers of Congress and the Oval Office gave voting rights activists hope that the legislation could advance. President Joe Biden had previously said he would sign the bill and recently tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the administration’s efforts to whip votes and ensure the legislation got to his desk. The ultimate fate of the For the People Act remains with the Senate, where the slim 50-50 Democratic majority creates a difficult path to victory.
Even before Manchin announced his opposition, the bill faced a hurdle to passage: the Senate filibuster, which allows any senator to block legislation on the floor. In previous decades, senators were required to stand and debate the bill for the entirety of the time they wished to block the vote, known as a “talking filibuster.” But this requirement has been done away with, and now any senator can trigger a filibuster by simply standing and saying, “I object” as the legislation begins to move forward. In order to end the filibuster, the Senate must vote for cloture, or the end of debate, which requires 60 votes. A filibustered bill cannot advance without 60 votes to move forward.
So, even if Democrats had all 50 members of their Senate caucus on board with the For the People Act, it was still likely that Republicans would filibuster the bill. This means that the Act could only pass if Democrats reformed the filibuster, which could take many forms — the threshold for cloture could be lowered to 55 votes instead of 60 or the “talking filibuster” requirement could be reinstated, meaning Republicans could only block the legislation as long as they are able to stand on the floor, with no food or drink, talking continuously. Or, the Democrats could get rid of the filibuster completely, allowing them to pass vital legislation with their Senate majority.
What can we expect now?
The debate over the filibuster turned out to be irrelevant to the fate of the For the People Act. In an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette, Manchin announced he would vote against S. 1 due to the lack of Republican support, all but sealing the fate of the legislation. “Congressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward,” Manchin wrote. He urged his colleagues to focus on passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act instead, which would strengthen and reinstate key preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Essentially, Manchin said he will not support voting rights legislation that does not have bipartisan support. Meanwhile, Republicans across the country continue to chip away at the foundations of our democratic system, sparing no thought for the concerns of their Democratic colleagues across the aisle.
Schumer is still expected to bring S. 1 to the floor for a vote; however, absent support from his entire caucus, it will not advance. Afterward, for now, the fate of Republican voter suppression legislation in the states will fall to the courts and the people. There are already six states facing lawsuits over new voter suppression laws they have passed in 2021, and that number will only grow as Republicans convene special sessions to finish passing their suppression priorities this summer.
What’s clear now is this: Republican legislatures in the states will continue to try and limit access to the ballot box no matter what. Until we have federal legislation like the For the People Act, our voting rights are in the hands of the courts and the people.
Voting rights groups and organizations across the country are hard at work lobbying their representatives and ensuring they know that restricting access to the ballot is wrong, anti-democratic and politically disadvantageous. Fair Fight Action’s “Stop Jim Crow 2” action page has a multitude of ways that concerned citizens can get involved to pass vital legislation and ensure that state governments do the right thing in the fight for better ballot access. Remember: we have the power to make change. Find the volunteer opportunity that’s right for you, and join the fight for voting rights today.
Here are some more resources to get involved:
- If you’re a Texas resident, become a deputy voter registrar in Texas and fight Republican voter suppression by getting folks registered to vote. Sign up here.
- Join When We All Vote’s “My School Votes” program as a parent or an educator and ensure that students, parents and community members in your school are registered. Sign up here.