This article is written by R Sai Gayatri, pursuing BA.LLB from Post Graduate College of Law, Osmania University. This article provides an analysis of the H.R. 1 Bill also called the For the People Act of 2021.
On 3rd March 2021, the House Democrats passed the H.R. 1 Bill which is also called the For the People Act. As per the Democrats, this Bill is aimed at fortifying democracy by expanding access of Americans to the ballot box, reducing corruption in politics by eliminating the usage of big money, strengthening ethical rules for public servants and implementing other such anti-corruption methods. Is this Bill a way forward towards unrestricted democracy or is it a means of ‘power grab’ as the Republicans state? Let us know more.
The said Bill deals with the security and integrity of elections, the finance for campaigning of elections and establishing robust ethical rules for public servants. The Bill mainly focuses on voter access by the means of voting through the mail and early voting. It restricts the removal of voters from voter rolls. Similarly, voting registration is also taken into consideration by facilitating same-day and automatic registration.
The Bill further elucidates on election security through the following points:
- States must ensure that their election systems are secured enough.
- Election officials must be provided with intelligence information.
- Cybersecurity must be improved to enhance the functioning of the election system.
- A National Commission to Protect the United States Democratic Institutions must be established in the legislative branch.
- The United States Democratic Institutions must be developed based on national strategies.
The ethical rules proposed by the Bill deal with the three government branches. Starting with the judiciary, the Bill requires the Supreme Court Justices to follow a code of conduct, further, it restricts Members of the House from acting in favour of a profit-aimed enterprise and lastly, the Bill provides ethical provisions to the federal employees and the White House. Further, tax returns of ten years are required to be disclosed by the President, Vice-President and related offices.
Campaigning during elections has also been discussed by this Bill. Disclosure of information regarding fundraising and spending for the campaign, restricting foreign nationals from spending on campaigning, providing alternate campaign funding systems for particular federal offices and keeping a check on political advertising through additional disclaimers have been prescribed by the said Bill. In this regard, the Bill proposes to pass the Honest Ads Act which requires Twitter and Facebook to disclose information regarding the source of money spent for political advertisements on their respective platforms and the DISCLOSE Act which requires Super Political Action Committees and ‘dark money’ political organizations to provide the details of their donors publically.
The said Bill opines that people must choose their leader and not the other way around so it aims to eliminate the possible situations of partisan gerrymandering. By establishing an independent redistricting commission, the Bill ensures that the congressional redistricting is not done in the favour of a particular politician or a political party which as a result would prohibit politicians from selecting the votes in whichever manner that seems feasible to them.
- 8th March 2019 – Similar Bill introduced by 116th Congress. The Bill passed the House but could not be brought to the Senate for a vote.
- 4th January 2021 – The H.R. 1 Bill introduced by 117th Congress
- 1st February 2021 – Hearings held by the House Committee for perusal and reform
- 11th February 2021 – Hearings held by House Committee regarding Veterans’ affairs
- 12th February 2021 – Hearing held by the House Committee for perusal and reform
- 22nd February 2021 – Text of the H.R. 1 published
- 24th February 2021 – Hearings held for perusal and investigations
- 25th February 2021 – H.R. 1 considered by Entrepreneurship, Investor Protection and the Capital Markets.
- 3rd March 2021 – H.R. 1 passed by the House, awaiting to be forwarded to the Senate next.
- 10th March 2021 – H.R. 1 considered by House Committee regarding financial services
- 11th March 2021 – H.R. 1 considered by financial institutions and consumer protection
- 24th March 2021 – H.R. 1 considered by Insurance, Community Development and Housing.
If at all H.R. 1 is subjected to any further action, then it will be passed in the Senate and finally signed by the President.
In the year 2019, a similar Bill was passed but was refused to be brought to the Senate for a vote. The Democrats state that minorities must not face difficulties while voting and for that to happen, federal intervention should be done to restrict Republicans from instating racist rules. While the Republican point of view is that the H.R. 1 Bill is taking away power in disguise of doing welfare. They state that the Bill seizes the authority of the states to regulate their voting systems and the protection of the voting rights would be at stake.
Sen. Mitch McConnell stated that the H.R. 1 Bill illustrates a ‘power grab’ which can potentially have the elections of all the fifty states centralized by giving complete authority to Washington Democrats. If the Republicans are firm about not supporting the Bill then there are very low chances that it would be able to fetch sixty votes in the Senate, the Bill would need to defeat a filibuster. A filibuster refers to a situation where with the help of extensive debating or procedural motions, the action to be taken on a Bill in the Senate is delayed or blocked. It is an easily available tool that poses as a huge obstacle for passing legislation. As a result, the Democrats have put forward their contention to abolish the filibuster so that the H.R. 1 Bill is passed. Rather than completely abolishing the filibuster, it can be lowered to a negligible level of importance or it must not be applied in certain cases such as the H.R. 1. This will avoid the political turmoil created by the Bill to an extent.
The White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that President Joe Biden is firm about providing protection to the fundamental right to vote for which it is important to facilitate all the eligible Americans with voting rights. Therefore, it is essential that reform bills such as H.R. 1 be passed and restoration of the Voting Right Act is done.
The following points critically analyse the H.R. 1 Bill:
- The Republicans state that the said Bill outrightly is in violation of the First Amendment. As per the law, causing intimidation or coercion towards a voter is considered a crime under the National Voter Registration Act, 1993 and Voting Rights Act. However, the said Bill extends the provision by considering it a crime if any “interference, hindrance or prevention” is caused to anyone while registering and voting. The wording used in this provision is so general and vague that it would affect the election process adversely by not letting the election officers receive any information regarding a particular voter.
- The Bill would create a gateway for fraudsters to cause mayhem at the election polls due to same-day registration as the election officers will not have sufficient time to officially verify the genuineness of a voter and the data provided by him. Subsequently, the accurate count of ballots and workers required at polling stations will be misled. Online voter registration can easily be used by cybercriminals as a portal to commit online voter registration frauds as it is not linked to any record maintained by the state.
- The Bill will hinder the control of states over voter registration and voting procedure because it makes it imperative for the states to enforce automatic voter registration, online voter registration, no-fault absentee balloting and early voting.
- The Bill allows or rather mandates no-fault absentee ballots which are also known as mail-in. In simple terms mail-in means that a person can cast his vote from his residence with no need of presenting a ‘qualifying’ reason for such preference. Now this Bill for such absentee ballots bans the notarization or witness signature requirements. It also makes it mandatory for the state to count absentee ballots till 10 days post-election day provided that such absentee ballots are postmarked by the election day. The Bill also encourages vote harvesting since any third party such as campaigning candidates also can receive and deliver such absentee ballots.
- As per the Bill, the ballots cast by voters outside of a particular precinct must also be counted by the state. This disrupts the precinct system followed by all the states that give authority to the election officers to supervise the elections and avoid any sort of election offences.
- The Bill restricts election officers from voting on the grounds of ethics which does not just limit political activity but is also unconstitutional. It takes away the power of the residents of various states to make decisions regarding their state officials independently.
- The Bill would increase campaigning cost as early voting will impact the magnitude of ‘getting out the vote’ which would in the end affect the voter outcome. The preference of voters could also be affected because the people who cast their vote before the election day are sure to miss out on the latest information that would otherwise be available on the election day. The Bill proposes to let people vote by just signing a statement where they state what they are mentioning in such a statement. It means that the states are forced to let people vote without a Voter ID leading to a ban on the state’s Voter ID-related laws.
- As per the Bill, a Commission to Protect Democratic Institutions would be established. These Democratic Institutions are supposed to make sure that free and fair elections are held, rule of law is being implemented properly and that there is an independent judiciary. The said Commission shall possess the power to force the Judges to justify and testify their decisions related to the law which means that the free-thinking capacity of the Judges will be controlled and harnessed as per the political requirement of the state.
- The Bill also states that the number of Election Commission members must be reduced to five from six which means that a political party that has only three commission seats will have the power to influence the commission and participate in partisan enforcement tasks.
- Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment gives the state the authority to judge when the criminals who committed felonies against fellow citizens shall be eligible to vote again. The said Bill states that these criminals must be made eligible to vote as soon as they are freed from prison, irrespective of the fact whether they have completed their sentence or not. Republicans state that a mere statue does not have the authority to supersede a Constitutional amendment.
The H.R. 1 or the For the People Act of 2021 is being painted as a colour of hope that will safeguard democracy in America by the Democrats whereas the Republicans are of the opinion that the said Bill is a potential threat through which power is being centralized into limited hands. The H.R. 1 Bill seems to be the topmost priority of the democrats as it was the first Bill introduced by them after taking over the Senate. Reforms regarding democratic legislation were never given importance by the Republicans, however, after the complex 2020 election experience amidst the Coronavirus situation, the Democrats are determined at giving the reform Bill a serious shot.
The H.R. 1 Bill is an extensive 800-page legislation that deals with various legal aspects at par involving the Constitutional Amendments. However, the Republicans state that the Bill outrightly violates various provisions of the First Amendment. It is for time to tell whether the fate of the Bill takes it to the desk of the President or returns back to the Members of the House.
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