Democracy reform is on the top of the agenda for the 117th Congress. After an election cycle that featured concerted attacks on our democracy from attempts to overturn the will of the voters to the January 6th assault on the Capitol, has an opportunity to strengthen our democracy by quickly passing the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Representatives in the House and Senate have announced that both will be priorities this session. Together, these pieces of legislation will protect our democracy and ensure that voters continue to choose their elected representatives, rather than politicians deciding who has the ability to vote.
The For the People Act includes provisions related to campaign finance and ethics, but the voting section is the heart of the bill. It protects the rights of all voters, but particularly for young voters, disabled voters, and returning citizens after they have served their sentences. In addition to expanding voter options to include early voting, mail-in voting, and in-person voting for all eligible citizens, it also removes common barriers to voting such as onerous registration requirements.
This legislation would modernize registration across the country by ensuring that every eligible voter could register online, automatically during interactions with state agencies such as DPS, or on the same day as a voter casts their ballot in a federal election. All three options are common and well-tested across the country – 41 states offer online voter registration, 20 use automatic voter registration, and 21 states have same-day voter registration. Texas currently does none of the above – one of just four states to still refuse all three of these common sense modernizations of our voting laws.
Registration remains one of the biggest barriers to voting, especially for young and new voters who are registering to vote for the first time and may be unfamiliar with registration deadlines or procedures. Young voters also tend to move more often, requiring that they re-register each time they change addresses. Online, automatic, and same-day registration all remove this added barrier.
But the For the People Act goes further in promoting youth voting. It also requires states to allow pre-registration – a process where 16- and 17-year-olds can register in advance, even though they still won’t be able to vote until they turn 18 – and grants money to states to promote this practice. Pre-registration allows young people to identify as future voters at a time when they are more likely to be learning about civics in a high school classroom or to encounter a voter registration drive in school. For students in higher education, the For the People Act requires that institutions must designate a Campus Vote Coordinator to provide information about elections and registration.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act complements the For the People Act by restoring the Voting Rights Act. The bill was renamed for the civil rights hero and Georgian Congressman John Lewis after his death last summer, and it honors his legacy by restoring the Voting Rights Act that he fought for from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the halls of Congress. From 1965 until 2013, the VRA protected Black voters and other communities of color from discriminatory voting laws. After the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision weakened the VRA, states and local jurisdictions took immediate steps to make it more difficult to vote. In Texas alone, the state declared that it would implement strict photo ID requirements within 24 hours of the Supreme Court decision, and in the intervening years officials have closed at least 403 polling places across the state. This Act is vital to restoring the protections of the VRA.
Our zip code shouldn’t determine our access to the ballot box. Yet in 2020, voting options varied widely across states – and even across all 254 Texas counties. The 2020 election cycle demonstrated both the cracks in our democracy and the tenacity of every voter who faced down a pandemic and escalating attacks on the right to vote in order to cast their ballots. Some state legislators are responding by doubling down on voter suppression tactics. The new administration must instead strengthen our democracy by prioritizing and passing the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.