Politics & Policy

H.R. 1 Is a Partisan Assault on American Democracy

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) arrives to speak to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 4, 2021. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Late Wednesday night, the House passed H.R. 1, the “For the People Act.” It passed by ten votes, with every Republican voting against it, as well as Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, who fears that the bill will abolish majority-black districts like his in the Deep South. Thompson deserves credit for reading past the title of the bill, which its cheerleaders in the media seem not to have done.

As to that title, H.R. 1 says that it is “For the People,” but tellingly, not by the people, or of the people. Quite the contrary.

It would be an understatement to describe H.R. 1 as a radical assault on American democracy, federalism, and free speech. It is actually several radical left-wing wish lists stuffed into a single 791-page sausage casing. It would override hundreds of state laws governing the orderly conduct of elections, federalize control of voting and elections to a degree without precedent in American history, end two centuries of state power to draw congressional districts, turn the Federal Elections Commission into a partisan weapon, and massively burden political speech against the government while offering government handouts to congressional campaigns and campus activists. Merely to describe the bill is to damn it, and describing it is a Herculean task in itself.

States have long experience running elections, and different states have taken different approaches suited to their own locales and populations. The federal government traditionally intervened only to prevent serious abuses of voting rights. H.R. 1 would upend that balance for no good reason, wrecking carefully refined state regimes for securing the vote. It also throws out much of the work of federal election laws passed with extensive bipartisan support in 1993 and 2002.

The first target is to wipe out state laws that allow voters to be checked against a preexisting list of registrations. H.R. 1 mandates that states provide same-day registration and allow people to change their name and address on the rolls at the polling place on Election Day, then forbids states from treating their votes as provisional ballots that can be checked later. It mandates online registration without adequate safeguards against hackers. It mandates automated registration of people who apply for unemployment, Medicaid, Obamacare, and college, or who are coming out of prison. The bill’s authors expect this to register noncitizens: They create a safe harbor against prosecution of noncitizens who report that they have been erroneously registered.

H.R. 1 bars states from checking with other states for duplicate registrations within six months of an election. It bars removing former voters from the rolls for failure to vote or to respond to mailings. Outside election observers are an important check on the system; H.R. 1 bars anyone but an election official from challenging a voter’s eligibility to vote on Election Day — thus insulating Democrat-run precincts from scrutiny.

State voter-ID laws are banned, replaced simply by a sworn voter statement. The dramatic expansion of mail-in voting during the COVID pandemic is enshrined permanently in federal law. States are banned from the most elementary security methods for mail-in ballots: They must provide a ballot to everyone without asking for identification and may not require notarization or a witness to signatures. States are compelled to permit ballot harvesting so long as the harvesters are not paid per ballot. Curbside voting, ballot drop boxes, and 15 days of early voting are mandated nationwide, and the bill micromanages the location and hours of polling stations, early voting locations, and drop boxes.

States are compelled to accept voter registrations from 16-year-olds, although they still cannot vote before turning 18 (an amendment to mandate that, too, was defeated). Democrats and their political allies, who rely on the youth vote, traditionally expend extensive resources registering young people. The bill shifts the job of signing up young voters to the federal government, which will pay to teach twelfth graders how to register, create a “Campus Vote Coordinator” position on college campuses, and award grants to colleges for “demonstrated excellence in registering students to vote.” This is measured in part by whether campuses provide rides to get students to the polls and whether they encourage both students and the communities around the campus to get “mobilized to vote.”

Restrictions on felon voting in federal elections in many states are overridden. This exceeds Congress’s constitutional authority over the conduct of elections by directly regulating who may vote, rather than how. In fact, the 14th Amendment expressly permits felons to be disenfranchised — as the Supreme Court held in 1974. State elections officials would be effectively banned from running for federal office by recusal requirements.

Not content to remake the American voting system, H.R. 1 takes the drawing of congressional districts out of the hands of elected state legislatures — who have done the job since the Founding — and turns them over to “independent” commissions, while banning mid-decade readjustments of district lines. It also counts inmates as residents of their last address (even if serving a life sentence), a provision aimed at reducing the representation of rural areas where prisons are located.

These are just the warm-ups. H.R. 1’s crackdowns on political speech are at least as extensive and biased as its changes to election law, and some of the provisions on coordination and foreign-related activity are so complex that even election-law experts warn that their impact is impossible to determine. For example, one provision could be read to bar corporations from political activity if they have even a single foreign shareholder. The new anti-speech laws would generate years of litigation, and many of them would likely be struck down by the Supreme Court.

New disclosure rules would treat huge amounts of speech and advertising on matters of public concern as if they were campaign contributions, including any advertisement urging viewers to contact elected officials to support or oppose a program, policy, or law. This would require donors to, say, the AARP to be identified as supporters of any candidate if the AARP demands that the candidate keep a promise to protect Social Security. The cumulative effect is to further burden citizen rights to petition and further insulate the government from criticism.

501(c)(4) nonprofits would be required to disclose their donors, another potentially unconstitutional burden on the freedom to speak and associate. New limits on corporate political activity are extensive, and similar restrictions are not placed on unions. Previous rules in place to enable free speech on the Internet and prevent political bias in IRS audits are repealed.

What would an omnibus bill be without handouts to unworthy causes, starting with the people who wrote the bill? H.R. 1 includes extensive public-funding giveaways to candidates, including a six-to-one public match for some donations to congressional and presidential campaigns. It also establishes a pilot program that gives voters $25 apiece to make government-funded donations to campaigns.

The labyrinth of new speech rules would be administered by the FEC, and so H.R. 1 eliminates the commission’s longstanding bipartisan structure and makes it more directly accountable to the president. We are sympathetic to efforts to make executive agencies more politically accountable, but the newly partisan structure of the FEC that would be created by H.R. 1 only illustrates why it should not wield such vast powers over elections.

There are reasonable issues to be taken with the current system of voting and elections, and constructive steps Congress could take. But not since the Alien and Sedition Acts has one political party in Congress sought to bend the power of the federal government, on partisan lines, toward crushing political opposition to this extent. H.R. 1 is not merely a bad idea; it is a scandal.

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