On Tuesday, Senate Republicans filibustered the motion to proceed to debate on the For the People Act (FTPA), the most significant electoral democracy bill in decades. The FTPA, also known as HR 1 and S 1, contains dozens of measures that would bring us closer to achieving a multiracial democracy where the working-class majority actually sees its priorities reflected in government policy.
Because the bill is so sweeping, it’s worth detailing some of its key provisions.
For starters, the FTPA would curtail the worst forms of voter disenfranchisement after decades of assaults on the right to vote. The bill restores the voting rights of millions of formerly incarcerated people (overwhelmingly poor and working-class, and disproportionately black, Latino, and indigenous); undercuts voter ID laws by permitting voters who lack adequate identification to complete sworn written statements that attest to their identities; and blocks discriminatory purges of voter rolls while boosting penalties for illegal voter intimidation.
The FTPA also makes it easier to vote. The bill mandates at least two weeks of early voting, automatic and same-day voter registration, and broadens the availability of absentee ballots, with extra accommodations for people with disabilities.
Recognizing that the right to vote can be rendered meaningless without fair legislative districts, the FTPA bans partisan gerrymandering and establishes independent commissions to draw congressional districts. Moreover, it ends prison-based gerrymandering — the insidious practice of counting those incarcerated in the location of their incarceration, which inflates the power of rural districts that contain prisons and incentivizes mass incarceration.
Finally, the FTPA tackles the corrosive influence of the donor class, one of the biggest obstacles to building working-class power in the halls of the Capitol. It sets up a voluntary small-donor matching system for federal races, with participating candidates eligible to receive a one-to-six match on small-money contributions. Another provision would allow nonincumbent candidates in federal races to use a capped amount of their campaign funds to cover expenses such as childcare and health insurance premiums — removing an additional barrier for working-class candidates.
The Republicans’ decision to wield the filibuster to block the For the People Act is hardly a surprise. Throughout the twentieth century, reactionary lawmakers used the filibuster to kneecap landmark civil rights legislation. In recent decades, the filibuster’s use has metastasized, making it routine for a minority of forty-one senators — representing a mere fraction of the population — to obstruct progressive legislation.
If the FTPA is to become law, the filibuster must be broken. But there is an additional roadblock: A non-unified Democratic caucus and the threat that the bill will be watered down in the legislative process.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) is the only Democrat not to cosponsor the FTPA. In an inexplicable pursuit of bipartisanship, he announced a few weeks ago that he would oppose the bill and eventually proposed his own version — with weakened voting rights protections, no public financing, and a voter ID mandate — to try to appeal to Republicans.
While many pundits declared the bill dead after Manchin initially announced his opposition, thousands of organizers and activists across the country kept up the pressure. Manchin ultimately returned to the negotiating table and agreed to join his caucus in voting to proceed to debate (while still saying he opposes the FTPA as written).
The road to passage will not be easy. Some now argue that the only way forward is a “skinny bill” — one that addresses the worst antidemocratic actions of the Republican Party while abandoning the broader vision of building a robust democracy worthy of the name. We should reject these shortsighted calls and press for the act in its original form, with all its vital provisions.
That will require galvanizing ordinary people across the country, channeling collective moral outrage and energy at those standing in our way. Just this week, ten protesters were arrested outside of Senator Krysten Sinema’s office while demonstrating against her support of the filibuster. Others in DC, including Dr Reverend William Barber, were arrested while targeting Sen. Manchin and Sen. Mitch McConnell. The group Black Voters Matter has likewise been holding freedom rides across the South.
The For the People Act is but a key step toward a vibrant multiracial democracy. In addition to rebuilding working-class power, we’ll also need to pass broader political reforms, including eliminating the electoral college, establishing multimember proportional districts, granting DC statehood, and more.
The status quo, however, is untenable, and we must begin to make bold progress. We cannot sit back and continue to allow our political system to be dominated by an oligarchic minority that operates at the expense of the working-class majority and blocks policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and housing-for-all. The fight for the For the People Act is but another chapter in the long, checkered history of American democracy — and we must tenaciously forge our way forward.