Analyzing the For The People Act
It has been but three months since the 117th Congress was inaugurated and not three months into its tenure has the new legislature seen gritty ruptures in its political fabric. With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to rage as of this paper, all eyes and ears have been focused on the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s ambitious stimulus package. Following two months of debate, negotiations, and a bewildering filibuster from Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), the ARP has since become law. With ARP passed, Congress has now turned their attention to other affairs, including a resolution that has been gaining traction in light of recent events. That resolution, known as “House Resolution 1,” or the For the People Act, is an expansive piece of legislation, advocating for thorough reforms to the American democratic system and shore up the legal defenses of our voting rights. Some have questioned why this bill is needed, but the United States, while a powerful, solid democracy, isn’t immune to democratic backsliding, and American democracy has seen an unprecedented degradation in its political structures, spanning far back as 2013. In fact, these issues are so pronounced, they can be categorized under three key areas: Foreign Interference, Ballot Degradation, and Structural Corruption.
Generally speaking, trust in the American democratic process has been shoddy at best, and depressing at worst. Early in 2020, USNews reported that 59% of Americans distrust their elections, which is a number that should be an anathema to the citizens of this country, yet is treated in a blase manner. Reasons for this distrust are multifaceted, but they can be generally rooted in the events that transpired during the election of 2016, when Russia had hacked the American electoral system in a bid to support then-candidate Donald Trump. The Russian hacking campaign was an ambitious project, orchestrated by a network of agents that had been in some way augmented by the Russian government, and had a rather clear agenda. According to a 2019 Times report that articulates a broad overview of the Mueller Report, which investigated the extent of Russia’s interference, the methodology of the incursions was a multi-pronged affair, from “[probing] state voter databases for insecurities, [hacking] the Clinton campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the DNC…[to releasing politically damaging information [and propaganda] on the internet.” Such a vast attack was not expected by the American government, at any level, and it had arguably aided in laying down the foundation of misinformation and political strife we currently face today.
Moreover, the Russians had attempted to repeat their successful infiltrations again during the 2018 midterm and 2020 general elections. In 2018, according to General James Mattis, the Russians had infiltrated the American electoral system once again, having been compounded by the fact that President Trump and his administration had “sought to roll back or simply...not [enforce] measures to hold Moscow accountable,” per the Washington Post. This lack of accountability had essentially signaled to Russia that they would not suffer repercussions should they repeat 2016, but fortunately, their influence was greatly diminished in the midterms. 2020 saw an even greater rollback in Russian, and indeed wider foreign, influence in our elections as a result of a more coordinated attack on false information from social media companies and the federal government, and such guardrails appeared to have paid off as a US intelligence report has confirmed Russia tried once again to swing the election for Trump. Despite this and Chris Krebs’s declaration that 2020 was “the most secure election in American history,” the years of false information and vulnerable election systems have made their marks on the American’s psyche, and have had the desired effect: that which is America being torn at the social seams, its democratic foundations rotting underneath us.
Ballot Efficacy Degradation
Where excursions targeting our electoral and political foundations have been known since 2016, the forays on the average American’s ability to vote have been equally, if more, detrimental. In 2013, courtesy of Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court had “[freed]...states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without federal approval,” according to the New York Times. What this means is that states could, theoretically, pass laws that could hamstring the capability of Americans to vote, be it by implementing new hurdles vis a vis required documents and/or implement more stringent timetables which dictate when a polling station is open. Such a landmark decision has only proven to be one that evolves with time, especially as these practices have become seemingly more discriminatory against certain voters, as the voter identification laws would show. According to the AFL-CIO, voter ID laws are, among other distinctions, “an undue burden” that affect those who do not “currently possess photo IDs and don't need them for any other purpose for voting…[specifically, this applies] overwhelmingly [to the] poor and disproportionately [so towards] African Americans and Latinos.” Per FiveThirtyEight, this disparity is encompassed by the statistic that nonwhite Americans were 2.5 to 6 times more likely to lack an ID than a Caucasian American. While it seems that these laws can severely cripple nonwhite voting, it appears that these laws do not have their intended effects, for they do not seem to impact voter turnout; at the same time, they do not seem to deter voter fraud, though the exact impact is so far indeterminable. According to FiveThirtyEight, however, these voter ID laws poll well with especially Republican voters (79%), and it is Republican legislatures that are more likely to pass them, and considering Latino and African American voters swing Democratic, it is not hard to see a racial and political bent to such laws.
A more recent development in the attack of the average American’s voter efficacy came in the prior election in 2020, and one that is certain to remain in the realm of discussion for years: voting by mail and absentee voting. Due to the (still ongoing) coronavirus pandemic, all 50 states had decided to liberalize their already established VBM and AB infrastructure to facilitate an easier voting process, and it shows in the statistics: according to Pew, 46% of votes cast in the 2020 election had been by mail. However, it appears as though this system of voting had struck a chord with Republicans, especially former President Trump, who decried this system as “voter fraud,” even before the first official ballots were shipped out. Since then, Republicans (save for a few exceptions) have parroted this “Big Lie,” and continue to today. What should be made known, however, is that not only do VBMs or Absentee ballots not cause fraud, but voter fraud on a national level is virtually nonexistent, as per the Bipartisan Policy Centre. In fact, the Heritage Foundation famously has a database of all the proven cases of voter fraud in the United States; if VBMs and Absentee ballots were to be considered fallacious, then over 73,000,000 cases would have been tallied from 2020 alone. Instead the number rests at only 1,318 cases, which, put into relative terms with 2020, would only have been 8 x 10^-6 of a percent of ballots that were fake. In other words, voter fraud is negligible, at best.
Yet despite these numbers, the limitless fact checks and the 60+ trials that former President Trump’s campaign had levied that all ended in disaster, Republican legislatures across 43 states have begun drafting 253 bills that would make voting much more difficult for voters. According to the Associated Press, this is even occurring in states that have “embraced absentee and mail voting,” with their examples being Arizona and Florida. However, none have come even close to an extreme than Georgia, a once red state that had flipped from red to purple to blue in the 2020 election after a fierce campaign for voter turnout spearheaded by Stacey Abrams resulted in a tripartite victory for Democrats that had gifted them their 16 Presidential electoral votes and the decisive 2 Senate seats needed to control the chamber. According to the Atlanta Magazine, the laws being introduced (and currently being deliberated on)“could make a variety of drastic changes to Georgia’s election laws, including doing away with no-excuse absentee voting, requiring absentee voter ID, restricting the locations of ballot drop boxes, and limiting the hours for early voting.” Some may call this protecting voter integrity, yet considering how such provisions can include a ban on opening polls during Sundays, which would coincide with African American-led “souls to the polls” programs, and how Georgia “Senate Republicans approved a bill to block early voting for all but the GOP’s most reliable voting bloc,” (AP), it appears as though these are a significant escalation from the initial wave of voter ID laws that could, and would, severely hamper millions of Americans’ rights to vote, a once inextricable feat in a nation like the United States.
Coinciding with these initiatives of vote degradation and foreign interference is a structural rot that has compromised how votes translate into what the populace wanted, and perhaps the oldest issue in our institutions lie in gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is essentially the unfair redistricting of populations and provides a significant amount of power to whoever is drawing the districts; the reason being is because it can allow for a party to either “pack” their opponents’ electoral constituency into smaller districts or “crack” them into districts where they would be a minority. Both cases of “packing” and “cracking” see the same result: diluting the voting capabilities of the affected constituency. As the Brennan Center describes it, gerrymandering results in “maps that lock in a comfortable majority...even when voters are split evenly,” and “reflect what voters don’t want,” as illustrated in 2012 when, per PBS reporting, “Democrats won a plurality in [the 2012 election]” and again in 2014 when both Pennsylvania and Ohio saw at least 40% of their population vote Democratic, yet in both circumstances, they lost seats in state legislatures and the House. This represents gerrymandering in a partisan manner, and it has been incorporated into the Republican electoral strategy to a tee, as the GOP controls far more state legislatures, who are responsible for drawing the district maps, though this isn’t to say Democrats do not do it either. The results of gerrymandering, regardless of who holds the pen, create “uncompetitive races [and] encourages politicians to cater to the extremes,”, as a redrawn district could harbor a more loyal bloc of voters, which means that the official doesn’t need to worry about trying to attract moderates into their coalition to shore up their incumbency.
Where gerrymandering has been a spectre that has been around for centuries, campaign finance has been a much younger ghost, yet it has far more teeth than redistricting chicanery. Money in politics is an old debate, as old as the republic itself, yet following the controversial case that is Citizens United vs. FEC (2010), this issue has grown to unprecedented proportions. Citizens United stated that limiting the amount of money a corporation can donate was a violation of free speech, in effect giving birth to Super PACs and dark money, while exacerbating the notion that politicians care more about money than their constituents. Prior to Citizens United, PACs were capped at providing up to $5,000 to a political campaign; now these so-called Super PACs can give as much as they want to their preferred campaigns. Per OpenSecret.org, the highest donating PACs are those that are “closely tied to party leaders or presidential candidates,” creating possible issues in transparency and conflicts of interest when discussions of donors crop up. Individual donors are no better, as the top 1% have provided the majority of revenue for Super PACs, spending an aggregate $1.1 billion in campaign contributions. Much like Super PACs, these individual donors can prove to be contentious due to their representation of their respective industries, putting into question what they want from the official they are rooting for and how that official would conduct themselves on the floor. As for the rest of us, the 99%, we could hardly match what the 1% are levying, as we only sent roughly $4 million to Super PACs, while the top 1% spent $97 billion in 2020 alone.
This only begs the question: how on earth can we, the people, manage to recover and bolster our voices when so many policies, rulings, and circumstances stymie our every move? What can we do? The answer lies in House Resolution 1, or Senate Bill 1 as it has been called after being reintroduced in the Senate, as it holds the keys to alleviating many of the issues detailed here, but one must understand such a bill in order to know of its consequences.
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