Earlier this month, the Democratic-led House passed a sweeping election reform package called the “For the People” Act. The bill is kind of a heaping basket of every election reform idea thought up in the past decade.
Here are the most important provisions —
- The Government will match small dollar donations for federal elections at a ratio of $6 to $1
- Expansion of early voting nationwide
- A move to third-party drawing of redistricting lines
- Automatic Voter Registration
- Mandatory release of 10 years of tax returns for Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates
The response to this bill from the GOP has been fairly typical. To sum it up: Republicans behave as if all election reforms are hand-picked to help Democrats steal power that Republicans have rightfully earned through the Super Fair processes of the Electoral College and voter ID laws.
If more people vote, they think, more Democrats will win. Instead of wondering what it says about your party that this might the case, Republicans are content in bashing all election reforms as unconstitutional power grabs. Is it not a good idea to know a president’s tax history? Apparently not. As Republicans, instead of contemplating whether this is a good idea, simply see this measure as a direct shot to the current president (if only because he’s the only person to refuse to comply with this standard in decades).
In particular, there seems to be nothing that gets Mitch McConnell more riled up than stopping election reform. He has dismissed the For the People Act as a horrible bill and promised that it will not receive a vote in the Senate.
The sheer scope of this bill, its easy to predict rejection by Republicans, and the fairly mild amount of media attention it received all begs the question: What was the point of passing it in the first place?
The Benefits of Going Big
Let’s look at a recent bipartisan measure which did pass in the majority Republican Senate–the motion blocking President Trump’s use of national emergency powers for his border wall (which was eventually vetoed by Trump).
There were a couple reasons why 12 GOP Senators voted with the Democrats here. First, there are legal issues. Article 1 of the constitution gives Congress, not the president, first and final authority over deciding where tax dollars go. Thru legislation, Congress can cede some of this authority to the executive branch for specific reasons, such as by allowing the president to enter into military conflict. But with this emergency wall vote, Congress has explicitly said ‘no, you cannot use tax money for this purpose’ and yet the president is trying to do so anyways — making this a fairly clear cut violation of the his constitutional powers.
The Republican Senators seemed to fear that this national emergency would set a poor precedent. That future presidents will call national emergencies for whatever they want instead of going through the legislative process. And the biggest example they point to when discussing this potential future problem? The Green New Deal. It would not be crazy to imagine a future Democratic President claiming that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, call a national emergency, and then allocate billions of dollars towards environmental safety under their now extraordinary powers.
Here is Susan Collins discussing the Trump emergency:
“It also sets a bad precedent for future Presidents — both Democratic and Republican — who might seek to use this same maneuver to circumvent Congress to advance their policy goals.”
Even though climate change and the border wall aren’t related, the mere existence of a big ambitious Green New Deal (a bill that hasn’t even passed!) changes the amount of corruption Republicans will allow in the present.
But even with this admittedly tangential success of the Green New Deal in changing the behavior of Senators, it’s important to differentiate between how big bills affect other people in the Congress, versus how they influence the public.
One supposed benefit of passing a large bill that you know won’t get passed this term is that it can put pressure on the other side of the aisle, but the sheer complexity of the For the People Act means that people reading about the bill or watching coverage of it on the news have less to “stick” to.
Here’s what I mean by stickiness. Let’s assume that the typical voter will spend an average of 45 seconds reading headlines, skimming articles, and watching videos on the subject of the For the People Act. (Keep in mind that there are hundreds of issues one could focus on at any given moment, and that most people are not engaged in the specific bills Congress passes, let alone the news as a whole. Given this, 45 seconds seems generous.)
If a person reads that the House has passed this act and that the GOP doesn’t like it — this event, these 45 seconds, seem to come across as same old same old. In reality, this bill would fundamentally expand how many people have the ability to make change in our political system, and the opposition to it, as we discussed earlier, reveals something significant about a party’s unwillingness to play on an even playing field. But because this bill has no singular focus, no one idea that cuts through the noise, it seems as if nothing profound is happening here.
My point is that time is limited. Voters need clear benchmarks so that they can be pleased or disappointed in their leaders. “For the People” sounds nice, but doesn’t really explain anything.
Simple Bills = Hard Choices
Now imagine a different scenario. Instead of passing this hodge-podge of a bill. The House instead passes two seperate bills that do exactly two things.
HR 1. The National Voting Holiday Act — making the first Tuesday of every even calendar year a voting holiday
HR 2. The Automatic Voter Registration Act — while filling for a drivers license renewal, passport, or other government form, every U.S. citizen receives their voter registration card
In a sense, the border wall national emergency vote is similar to these two hypothetical acts in that it is clear what would happen if it were passed. Marco Rubio, who voted to block Trump’s national emergency, would have a tough time answering questions from some Florida constituents had he voted to not block the emergency call. On the other hand, he probably won’t be getting any flack for not supporting the For the People Act.
But if Republicans have to come out and say that they were opposed to national voting holidays or reject a common sense idea like Automatic Voter Registration, then that is where larger swaths of the public have an opportunity to get rightfully upset at the lack commitment their leaders have to a democratic way of life.
Complex bills, however, are easy for the politicians to oppose while avoiding backlash. All it takes is for that candidate to point towards one relatively small or unpopular part of this election bill and say that that is the reason they don’t support it. By doing this, they can seem both principled and pro-democracy.
It seems like what happens during the negotiations for mammoth bills like the For the People Act or the Green New Deal is that there are so many people that get to have input, so many congressmen that want their own personal one or two sentences in the bill that by the end of the process you have something so big it is nearly impossible to sell.
One thing that worries me about this congressional term is just how easy the Democrats’ messy process might be replicated on other important issues. Take gun safety. It would be easy to imagine the House passing a sweeping gun safety bill that incorporates many fixes in order to reduce gun violence in America — just for the bill to face similar political problems.
The last major gun bill passed by Congress was in 1994, banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines. While it had some issues, most importantly for our discussion is that this bill did basically one thing: ban assault weapons. Congress did not reach for the moon, and as a result, America was a little bit safer until the bill expired in 2004, and even Republican Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan were in support of the assault weapons ban.
A bill that forced Republicans to make a clean up or down vote on an issue that 90% of Americans support like Universal Background Checks would have the potential of turning a few safe-ish Republican seats in the House and Senate into flippable ones. But if instead of something clear and marketable like National Voter Registration, all the Democrats’ bills do a hundred things at once, it will be exponentially more difficult to make any politician pay the price for not supporting good ideas.
Democrats need to keep this in mind. It isn’t just about how many boxes your bill can check, it’s how easily you can put pressure on politicians who don’t support your proposal. Bigger is not always better.