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The People Act Bill would make Sweeping Changes to Current Election Laws/Procedures

Senators spar over For the People Act

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Members of the Senate Rules Committee questioned expert witnesses and debated the merits of the For the People Act during a contentious hearing Wednesday.

The bill would make sweeping changes to the current election laws and procedures, tackling what former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the “unholy trinity of voter suppression, dark money and gerrymandering” during his testimony as a witness before the committee.   

The Democratic-sponsored legislation would close a loophole that allows nonprofits and shell companies to spend untraceable dollars — or “dark money” — to influence elections. If the bill becomes law, all political contributions greater than $10,000 will be subject to disclosure laws, no matter the recipient’s nonprofit status.  

According to an OpenSecrets report cited several times during the hearing and in witness testimony, dark money groups spent over $1 billion over the course of the 2020 election cycle. 

“These secret contributions are dangerous,” wrote Fred Wertheimer, director of nonprofit group Democracy 21, as part of his testimony to the Rules Committee. “Since the source and amount of the money are secret, there is no way to hold the donors who provide this money and the members of Congress who politically benefit from the money accountable for any corrupting influence the large contributions may exert on public policy decisions.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), one of the bill’s sponsors in the Senate, said dark money is “such a source of cynicism” for citizens.

“They see those campaign attack ads, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, nobody knowing where it comes from, and what they know is that that isn’t power from the people,” Merkley said. “That is power from the corporations, of the mega-rich, attempting to influence the course of our country.” 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) highlighted provisions in the bill that would make it easier for eligible Americans to vote by instituting automatic voter registration, expanding vote by mail and banning states from using “vote purging” tactics to deregister eligible voters. Schumer contrasted the For the People Act with state-level efforts to crack down on alleged voter fraud, which are championed by Republican state lawmakers in several states across the country. 

“I would like to ask my Republican colleagues: why are you so afraid of democracy?” Schumer said. 

“[It is] one of the most despicable things I have seen in all my years. Shame, shame, shame.” 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fired back, calling the Democratic bill a “partisan power grab.” The legislation would decrease the number of Federal Election Commission members from six to five and give the party that controls the Senate the power to name the majority of commissioners.   

“This audacious move to turn the judge of our democratic process into a partisan prosecutor? Talk about shame,” McConnell said.  

Proponents of the bill say these changes would break the deadlock that has long plagued the FEC. In written testimony provided to the Rules Committee, former Republican FEC commissioner Trevor Potter endorsed the provision, writing that “the FEC is in dire need of reform.”

“Over roughly the past decade, the FEC has routinely failed to enforce the law, even when presented with overwhelming evidence of likely legal violations,” Potter said. 

“This inaction has resulted in an explosion in secret spending and our politics increasingly rigged in favor of wealthy special interests,” he added 

Voters and lawmakers of both parties are dissatisfied with the state of American democracy. A February poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs research found that only 16 percent of Americans think democracy is functioning “extremely or very well.” 

Democratic voters are highly supportive of provisions in the For the People Act that would limit the influence of money in politics and protect voting rights. Republican voters, however, are more concerned with allegations of wide-spread voter fraud, and conservative lawmakers say the bill would make it easier for nefarious actors to rig elections in their favor. 

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita testified against the bill, cautioning that the For the People Act would open up “more potential for abuse.” 

“If you don’t couple an improvement of the voting process … with individual responsibility and accountability, all you’re doing is making it easier to cheat,” Rokita said. 

Rokita also claimed that state-level expansions of vote-by-mail and early voting programs set up to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at in-person polling places damaged the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Multiple independent investigations and court cases failed to uncover any evidence of voter-fraud. 

The For the People Act passed the House in early March with the support of all Democrats except Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). The bill received no votes from Republicans and is not expected to attract enough votes in the Senate to bypass a GOP filibuster. 

Democrats including Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have vowed to pass the bill even if it means changing filibuster rules or scrapping the practice all together. At a press conference Thursday, President Joe Biden said he would support changing Senate rules to mandate a so-called “talking filibuster,” which would make it more difficult for GOP lawmakers to block legislation from moving to a floor vote. Moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has also said he would support such a change but does not agree with progressive Democrats who want to scrap the filibuster all together. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee announced Wednesday that it will spend more than $1 million on a TV ad campaign against the For the People Act to air in states where Democrats will defend vulnerable Senate seats including New Hampshire, Arizona and Georgia. The ads will paint the bill as a Democratic power grab intended to infringe states’ ability to craft their own election laws

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published here with permission of the Center for Responsive Politics