The For the People Act of 2021—known as H.R. 1 in the House and S.1 in the Senate—was introduced in the US House on January 4 as a primary concern of the Biden administration, and passed in the U.S. House on March 3rd.
An almost identical bill was introduced in 2019, and passed in the Democrat-controlled House, but failed in the Senate along party lines. Now that Democrats control both chambers—and the White House—the bill is back. The controlling party in each congressional chamber uses its first bill to indicate their highest-priority legislation for the session.
The bill itself numbers almost 800 pages and outlines sweeping restrictions and regulations on three major aspects of political speech: voting, campaign finance, and the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
The opening pages of H.R. 1 revolve around voting regulations. In particular, it seizes states’ authority over elections by mandating states implement early voting, automatic voter registration, same-day registration, online voter registration, and no-fault absentee balloting.
The legislation also proposes expanding voter eligibility—requiring states to restore the ability for felons to vote, and to accept voter registration from minors. It also prohibits states from enforcing their own voter ID laws by requiring them to allow individuals to vote without an ID.
Adding to the wide-range of topics, H.R. 1 also contains language that would upend the controversial redistricting process. It would hand over the right to draw congressional districts from state legislatures to “independent commissions.” Intended to limit gerrymandering, these new guidelines would remove the ability of citizens to hold lawmakers accountable for their redistricting decisions and give the power to a group of unelected “experts.”
Money talks in politics. From PACs giving directly to candidates, to private citizens contributing to issue-advocacy organizations, financial support is considered a form of political speech. When it comes to campaign finance, H.R. 1 drastically increases reporting requirements not only on organizations that sponsor public communications, but also on organizations that make grants to any groups that could be seen as making “campaign-related disbursements.”
In the name of attempting to eliminate so-called “dark money”, this legislation calls for an end to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that protects the right and privacy of individuals who wish to associate with and financially support nonprofit advocacy organizations.
And, among a lengthy list of other regulations and restrictions, H.R. 1 also proposes a “small dollar public financing system” for federal-level campaigns. The program earmarks taxpayer dollars for political campaigns and is modeled off a program run by New York City’s government.
When the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) was created, Republicans and Democrats both recognized the potential for the commission to be weaponized by government officials and agreed it should have a bipartisan makeup with no way for a president to have control. The so-called For the People Act would change both the composition and control of the Federal Election Commission.
Currently, the FEC is a six-member agency, prohibited by law from having more than three members representing one political party. Members are appointed by the president, and must be confirmed by the Senate. Under the proposals in H.R. 1, the commission would be transformed into a five-member agency, giving the president the ability to create a party majority within the agency.
The legislation empowers the FEC Chair, who would be appointed by the president, with nearly unilateral authority over the organization.
Proponents of the For the People Act say individuals and corporations should be limited in their abilities “to spend millions of dollars to influence elections while keeping their identities a secret.” Supporters also say the legislation would make the FEC more efficient, and expand voting rights.
Those who oppose the legislation say its language is vague and open to a variety of interpretations, and that it would micromanage the election process, impose wide-ranging, unconstitutional restrictions on speech, and provide the opportunity for the FEC to be used as a weapon against one party’s political opponents.