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What’s in Democrats’ big election-reform bill and why they might be willing to get rid of the filibuster in order to pass it

H.R. 1 touches everything from redistricting to campaign finance to political advertising, and more.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speaking during a January news conference to call on Senate Republicans to act on H.R.1.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speaking during a January news conference to call on Senate Republicans to act on H.R.1.
REUTERS/Tom Brenner

In early March, House Democrats passed H.R.1, an enormous anti-corruption and voting rights reform bill also known as the For the People Act. H.R.1 also includes a major overhaul of campaign finance and redistricting laws. The bill will next face a vote in the Senate, where it has a tough road ahead despite the Democrats’ majority in that chamber.

H.R.1 and its Senate counterpart S.1 are, as the numbers suggest, Democrats’ first priority in Congress. This is the second time in two years that Democrats have introduced this sweeping democracy-reform bill — it first passed the House in March 2019 but faced defeat in the Senate.

At nearly 800 pages, H.R.1 covers a lot of ground. Some key points, though, are instituting nonpartisan redistricting commissions to end partisan gerrymandering, creating a national system for automatic voter registration and adding transparency requirements for political advertising.

There is a stark partisan divide on the bill that would overhaul the U.S. voting system as we know it. Congressional Democrats, along with President Joe Biden, say the country needs federal intervention to stop Republicans from reinstating racist Jim Crow-style rules that make it more difficult for minorities to vote. Republicans, on the other hand, view H.R.1 as a power grab that would remove protections on the right to vote and take away states’ authority to maintain their own voting systems.

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With no support from Republicans, the bill has no chance of attracting the 60 votes in the Senate it would need to overcome a filibuster. That has led some Democrats — including Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith — to advocate for abolishing the filibuster in order to pass the bill.

Republicans are not as gung-ho on the topic of filibuster reform: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the result would be a “scorched earth Senate,” insinuating that by killing the filibuster, Democrats would “release furies they can barely imagine.”

What’s in the bill

The massive bill can generally be split into three categories: election integrity, expanding voting access and voting rights, and campaign finance reform.

Election integrity
  • Establishes new requirements for congressional redistricting, including rules for drawing districts, a ban on partisan gerrymandering, stronger protections for minority communities and a requirement that states use independent commissions to draw district maps.
  • Creates a congressional task force to analyze disenfranchisement in U.S. territories and recommend measures to facilitate federal voting rights for their citizens.
  • Requires the Census Bureau to record incarcerated people as living in their pre-incarceration communities rather than at the prison facilities where they are serving their sentences.
  • Sets new safeguards against improper purges of voting rolls to prevent voters being incorrectly removed from their voter registration.

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Expanding voting access and voting rights
  • Modernizes voter registration by promoting internet registration, same day voter registration and automatic voter registration.
  • Expands opportunities to vote by mail in federal elections by requiring states to send mail-in ballots to anyone who requests one, and prevents states from prohibiting any person from distributing mail-in ballot applications.
  • Introduces the Disability Voting Rights Act, which would increase protections for the more than 35 million disabled Americans who are of voting age.
  • Restores federal voting rights to Americans who have been convicted of felonies.
  • Allows voters age 16 and older to pre-register to vote in federal elections once they turn 18.

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Campaign finance reform
  • Requires campaigns to report contacts with foreign governments that involve offers of unlawful campaign contributions or collaboration to influence U.S. elections.
  • Closes loopholes that allow spending by foreign nationals in U.S. elections.
  • Introduces the Honest Ads Act, which would increase transparency requirements for online political ads and take steps to combat foreign interference.
  • Repeals a budget rider that prohibits the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from requiring greater transparency from tax-exempt organizations.
  • Introduces the Presidential Inaugural Committee Oversight Act, which would impose new safeguards for donations to Presidential Inaugural Committees.

When it passed in the House, H.R.1 contained some provisions and legislation written by Minnesota representatives.

Rep. Dean Phillips authored five provisions in the package, including the Voter NOTICE Act, which fights disinformation, and the FIREWALL Act, which strengthens safeguards around online advertising.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
REUTERS/Erin Scott
Rep. Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar authored legislation including the Protect Against Unlawful Lobbying (PAUL) Act, and an amendment that prohibits lobbying on behalf of foreign countries that violate human rights.

Along with Virginia’s Sen. Mark Warner, Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced the Honest Ads Act in response to Russian attempts to “influence the 2016 presidential election.” The act would improve disclosure requirements for online political advertisements and require digital platforms with at least 50 million monthly visitors to make public the communications between the platform and a person or group that spends over $500 on ads.

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Why Republicans say they’re against it

For Republicans, the Democratic bill represents a “power grab” that could “centralize control of elections in all 50 states in Washington Democrats’ hands,” according to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Other conservatives condemn the bill as a disastrous federal overreach, saying it will destroy the decentralized electoral system in favor of a nationalized standard approach to elections.

Rep. Tom Emmer
REUTERS/Leah Millis
Rep. Tom Emmer
Rep. Tom Emmer from Minnesota’s Sixth District issued a statement after H.R.1 passed the House earlier this month expressing his opposition to the bill. He said Democrats were permanently associating themselves with a bill that would “erode state control of their elections and provide government funding for partisan campaigns.”

At the state level, Republicans have passed legislation that restricts voter access. According to the Brennan Center, at least 33 states have already introduced or carried over 165 bills that re-tighten voting requirements. In Georgia, a state in the voting-rights spotlight after its amplified role in the 2020 Senate race, the Legislature recently passed the Election Integrity Act of 2021, which voting rights advocates have decried as a method of restricting voting access for minorities. Three voting rights groups have already signed a lawsuit challenging the new law.

Why we’re hearing so much about the filibuster

Under current rules, the Senate needs 60 votes to end debate and pass legislation. This requires Democrats to have the support of at least 10 Republicans to advance bills in the current 50-50 Senate.

That’s because of the  filibuster, made famous by movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The filibuster used to necessitate that a senator speak on the chamber floor to block a bill for as long as they could keep standing and talking. But in the 1970s, the Senate changed its rules so that senators could trigger a filibuster simply by announcing they wanted to block a bill.

This rule change was meant to help the Senate run more efficiently, but as a result the filibuster became much easier to use and one of the largest obstacles to passing legislation

Some Democrats view abolishing the filibuster as the only way to pass the For the People Act in the closely divided Senate.

Minnesota Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar have both expressed their support for abolishing the filibuster, with Smith calling the filibuster “undemocratic.” Klobuchar said the likely death of the “For the People Act” in the Senate flipped her from a long-standing “maybe” to a “yes.”

“I would get rid of the filibuster. I have favored filibuster reform for a long time and now especially for this critical election bill,” Klobuchar told Mother Jones. As the chair of the Senate Rules Committee which oversees federal elections, Klobuchar has a lot riding on the For the People Act.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
There are a few ways to actually get rid of the filibuster. The most straightforward way would be to formally change the text of Senate Rule 22, the rule that requires 60 votes to end debate and pass legislation. This method, however, would be difficult: it would require the support of two-thirds of the members present and voting. In a Senate that already struggles to find a 60-vote majority, finding over 25 Republicans who’d say goodbye to the filibuster would be next to impossible.

Creating a new Senate precedent, known colloquially as the “nuclear option” and more formally as “reform by ruling,” can happen with only a simple majority of senators. In 2013, after Senate Republicans continually filibustered former President Obama’s nominations, Senate Democrats changed the baseline for overruling a filibuster on presidential nominations (except Supreme Court nominations) from a three-fifths majority to a simple majority. Then in 2017, Senate Republicans used this approach to reduce the number of votes needed to end debate on Supreme Court nominations in an effort to end debate on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.

Not all Democrats are on board with abolishing the filibuster. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin favors a more bipartisan approach to passing legislation. He told POLITICO, “I want to make it very clear to everybody: There’s no way that I would vote to prevent the minority from having input into the process in the Senate. That means protecting the filibuster. It must be a process to get to that 60-vote threshold.” Democrats need all 50 of their Senators to be on board for filibuster reform, so if Manchin — or anyone else — decides against reform, that’s it.

Sen. Tina Smith
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Sen. Tina Smith
Senators could also try to weaken the filibuster instead of completely getting rid of it. A Senate majority could ban filibusters on certain motions, like the motion to proceed (the motion used to call up a bill to start voting). With a simple majority, senators could at least eliminate a hurdle for starting debate on legislation.

Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock (D) said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the For the People Act was a moral imperative for Democrats.

“I think that we have to pass voting rights no matter what,” Warnock said when asked if he thought the filibuster had to be eliminated to get the bill passed. “The filibuster at the end of the day is about minority rights in the Senate… this is a defining moment in the American nation and I think all of us have a role to play.”