Update: On Friday House Democrats used their majority to pass their landmark “For the People Act”, better known as HR1 aimed at reforming government by addressing issues in voting, campaign finance, redistricting and ethics.
The bill predictably passed by a 234-193 party-line vote and will now be headed to the Senate, controlled by the Republicans, where it is not likely to pass. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had already penned an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this year calling the bill the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”
That being said, Democrats are prepared to battle it out.
“If Mitch McConnell is the immovable object, H.R. 1 is the unstoppable force,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the lead author of the bill told the Post. “We’ll keep pushing on it.”
According to Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), the historic vote couldn’t have happened on a better day.
“Today, we’re restoring equality into our elections. With the passage of H.R.1, Democrats in the House countered Republicans toxic, racist culture of voter intimidation, and said to the American public: your vote matters. I can’t thinking of a more fitting day, than International Women’s Day, to stand up for every Americans’ right to vote and to work to restore our free and fair elections,” Veasey told ESSENCE.
At the beginning of the year, House Democrats unveiled their “For The People Act”, better known as HR1, a sweeping political anti-corruption bill meant to address perceived issues in voting, campaign finance, redistricting and ethics.
Since being introduced in the House, Democrats have steadily pushed the agenda, meant to be the hallmark of the 116th Congress. Last Tuesday, there was some breakthrough, with the House Administration approving the bill by a 6-3 party-line vote. The bill is expected to come to the House floor on Friday morning for a vote.
Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), the founder and co-chair of the Voting Rights Caucus within Congress, has played an integral role in the voting rights reforms that have been proposed in HR1.
“I’m really excited about being a part of HR1, which is obviously a huge priority for Democrats. We’ve been trying to clean up a lot of the issues dealing with dark money in politics, and other parts of our electoral system to restore confidence back into our electoral system,” Veasey recently told ESSENCE.
Voting rights are something that Veasey, who represents Texas’ 33rd congressional district, is passionate about, and perhaps to no small surprise, as voting issues have been a repeated problem in the Lone Star State in recent years.
In January, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley started a political firestorm when he questioned the citizenship of some 100,000 voters, signaling his intent to purge voter rolls in Texas. Last month, a federal judge took officials to task, blocking the state from removing any registered voter without the court’s approval, renouncing claims that there was widespread voter fraud, and calling the situation a “mess”.
And that is just the most recent incident that has come up in the state that has had controversy surrounding its voter ID requirements, as well as its congressional and state legislative district maps, which civil rights groups have claimed, undermine the voting power of Black and Latino voters.
While some officials have seemingly worked to make voting harder, Veasey (and others) have been doing their own work, pushing back.
In January, Veasey along with Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Washington), introduced the America Votes Act, which would allow voters to go to polls without any identification required by their state, and instead sign a sworn affidavit confirming their identity, and vote freely. This bill is incorporated within HR1 as a way of fixing longstanding problems with voting and voter identification, not only in Veasey’s home state but also across the nation.
“The America Votes Act works to reduce the damage done by suppressive Voter ID laws across the country that restrict Americans’ right to vote by creating new protections for voters arriving at the polls,” Veasey emphasized back on Jan. 17. when the bill was first introduced. “The bill will require the 35 states with voter ID laws to allow voters arriving at polls, without the identification required by their state, to provide a sworn written statement affirming their identity. This, along with other provisions within H.R.1 to create automatic voter registration, will continue to work to limit the power of restrictive voter ID laws. This bill is critical to the growth and health of our democratic institutions.”
According to Veasey, it’s all about “common sense” and also restoring the people’s confidence that yes, their vote does mean something.
“People will eventually stop voting if they think their vote is not going to count, and we need to do what we can to restore confidence in the electoral system, because what the Republicans designed has really eroded a lot of that trust, and goodwill that was created after the Voting Rights Act passed,” he said.
For Veasey, voter ID laws are “essentially a poll tax,” something, he points out, that has been outlawed for a long time.
“While they say the ID is free, it’s not. You have to be able to go and get supporting documents like a passport, or birth certificate, and of course, those things cost money for you to be able to go and get if you want to go get the free ID. The free ID is not free at all,” he said.
And HR1, again, a hefty, wide-sweeping bill, is hoping to fix all of that and more. Some of the measures proposed in the bill include making Election Day a Federal Holiday, requiring states to have an automatic registration system for eligible individuals in which the potential voter would have to actively decide to opt out of being registered, rather than actively seeking registration, felons would regain their voting rights after completing their sentencing requirements, it would require the United States Postal Services to carry absentee ballots for free to ensure that anyone regardless of age or disability could vote, and it would revive key anti-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which were gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.
Veasey has also been working with other Democrat stars, like Stacey Abrams, who just narrowly lost her 2018 gubernatorial run in Georgia in an election that was plagued with accusations of voter suppression – to get the message out about HR1.
We have a massive voting problem in America. H.R.1 is Democrats’ promise to the American public to create real lasting voting reform, to eliminate discriminatory voting laws, and restore confidence that every ballot cast is a ballot counted. Everyone’s voices will be heard. pic.twitter.com/ymyHfPSjVp
— Rep. Marc Veasey (@RepVeasey) February 25, 2019
And that’s just from the voting and elections provisions of the bill.
The bill also seeks to shine a light on dark money and require organizations involved in politics to disclose big donors, while also empowering grassroots organizations and everyday citizens through a matching-fund program, which would support House candidates who agree to take small donations to lessen dependency on PAC money.
Democracy Reform Task Force Chair Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who is also the principal author of HR1, spoke to ESSENCE as well, pointing out the importance of these measures.
“The evidence is that the super PACs, these various 501C organizations that had become a vehicle for big donors, millionaires, corporations to funnel money into campaigns and into the political space, put a huge amount of influence over the way policy gets made,” he explained. “If you’re a legislator and you’re trying to make smart tax policy that’s supposed to help a broad cross-section of Americans, but there’s a super PAC out there that’s acting on behalf of Wall Street and the big backed banks and they’re threatening to spend a lot of money against you, it’s going to affect how you vote potentially. When you mix money and dependency on money or fear of money being spent against you in large amounts, if you mix that up with human nature, it can distort the way policy decisions get made.”
These sorts of influences can certainly negatively impact minority communities at worst, or just cause them to be overlooked.
“Minority voters, minority communities can really suffer when policy decisions in Washington are being made by these well-heeled interests. And the reason is, I think oftentimes those interests and those special interests are largely out of touch with the situation faced by many Americans,” Sarbanes said. “They can’t relate to it. They’re never going to translate policy proposals in the same way that you would have grassroots, community-based representatives do.”
That is why, according to Sarbanes, it is so important to put the importance back into smaller donors, the regular Americans who want their interests to be heard.
“If you build a system that allows small donors to have their contributions matched – in the case that we’ve presented as part of HR1, a six to one matching fund so that if someone gives $25 and there’s $150 match comes in behind that – what that does is instantly transform the small-donor everyday-citizen universe into a place that the lawmaker wants to be, because they can actually power their campaign and be competitive,” Sarbanes stressed. “Candidates start showing up in the living rooms, in the communities of everyday Americans, and, instead of hanging out with lobbyists and big-money donors, they come to where the people are.”
All this merely brushes the surface of what HR1 hopes to accomplish. Of course, in order to become an actuality, the bill would have to pass both the House and the Senate. Veasey is confident that it will get through the House, the Senate, however, is a whole different story. And even if it somehow made it through the Senate, it would still have to go through President Trump’s desk.
Nonetheless, he is hopeful about the message it would send even if it only passes through the House.
“I think by us making a statement in the House on the Democratic side that we’re really taking cleaning up our election system seriously, I think it will put a lot of confidence in the American people regardless of what race that you happen to be,” he said.