The National Watch Team
HR 1: Revival of Democracy or Congressional Overreach?
On January 3rd, the new-look 116th Congress saw the introduction of its first bill, HR 1. The proposed bill, known as the For the People Act of 2019, was introduced and sponsored by Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD). HR 1 takes aim at election and voter reform, proposing solutions to several of the most trenchant shortcomings in the modern election format.
Despite passing in the House on March 8th by a 234-193 margin, the bill’s support came along party lines, with zero Republicans voting in favor of the measure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has so far refused to bring the bill to the floor in his chamber, where it would certainly be rejected under Republican control. In essence, HR 1 casts itself as a means of restoring inclusiveness, security, and transparency to the American democratic system. Its opponents scoff at this position, referring to the bill as a Democratic power grab. Does the bill ultimately accomplish its ambitions? The answer, much like the bill itself, is more complex than you may think.
Election Reform for Voters
HR 1 opens by addressing the state of American elections. Under HR 1, all states would be required to offer online voter registration. Currently, at least 38 states and the District of Columbia (DC) offer the service. The bill goes much further, however, requiring all states to actively identify and send registration information to those eligible to register to vote. Individuals have the option to decline registering, but those who fail to respond to registration solicitations are registered by the state in a practice known as automatic registration. While opponents may object to the use of personal information for registration without an individual’s express consent, proponents of automatic registration argue that it accurately and cost-effectively adds millions of eligible voters to the rolls.
Furthering the notion that states are accountable for the voting access of their citizens, the bill requires the provision of same day voter registration and updates in all 50 states. The bill also establishes nationwide requirements for absentee voting by mail, including postage-free mailing of ballots. HR 1 looks to subvert socioeconomic targeting by requiring uniform polling times and at least four hours of early voting in all states for at least 15 days prior to each general election. Polling places must be located, when feasible, within walking distance of public transportation, and states may receive federal grants to improve ballots and voting accessibility for those with disabilities and language difficulties. Polling location changes must be sent in a timely manner to voters, and state and federal hotlines must be maintained to handle voter questions and complaints up to and on election day. Voter ID laws are also examined by the bill, which proposes numerous methods to verify voter identities and eliminate discriminatory tactics on election day.
Many parts of the bill will not be met with controversy—it also promotes absentee ballots and pilot programs to help the disabled vote from home, prohibits the intentional misleading or intimidation of voters, and strengthens the voting ability of uniformed service members stationed overseas. The bill also prohibits unchecked voter purging, including voter caging, in which mailed material is sent to registered voters, who are purged from the voting rolls if they fail to reply. However, the bill may seem excessively inclusive to some. HR 1 would restore voting rights to anyone convicted of a criminal offense, other than those serving a felony sentence on election day. States are required to notify offenders of their voting eligibility at sentencing (for misdemeanor offenses) or release/parole (felony offenses). Felon re-enfranchisement has garnered more support in recent years, with states such as Florida (home to more than one million disenfranchised felons) passing their own measures as recently as 2018. Nonetheless, the impact of these voters on election results is a profound enigma, potentially swinging future elections dramatically. The restoration of felon voting rights therefore remains a key point of contention for incumbents in 2020 and beyond.
Another much-publicized proposition of HR 1, the designation of general election days as federal holidays, could address a primary threat to voter participation: lack of time outside of work. The economic impact of a new federal holiday is unclear but could be significant, as lamented by bill opponents such as McConnell. The bill also supports full representation for Washington, D.C., stating that “there are no constitutional, historical, financial, or economic reasons why the 700,000 Americans who live in the District of Columbia should not be granted statehood.” In terms of population, taxes paid, consumer income, and spending, D.C. is comparable to a number of U.S. states, but is not represented in the United States Senate. Again, the issue of D.C. statehood and congressional representation has been disputed throughout U.S. history, rendering its inclusion in HR 1 a sure point of contention.
Election Infrastructure and Security
In the wake of widespread Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, HR 1 focuses heavily on election infrastructure and security. The bill appropriates federal grants in the amount of at least $1 per voter for the improvement of voting machine technology and security. Testing of voting hardware and software would be required prior to all general elections, and all technology not meeting guidelines would be promptly decertified. All vendors of voting machine technology and cybersecurity would receive thorough vetting, and private sector security innovations would be incentivized using grants. Action plans and threat assessments by the President and Congress alike would be crafted to develop a national strategy against election interference.
Redistricting and Campaign Finance
HR 1 also sets it sights on the reform of one of the defining issues of modern American politics: redistricting. Redistricting, the periodic redefining of the boundaries of the districts assigned to House members within each state, has traditionally been controlled by state legislatures. Unfortunately, parties are often guilty of gerrymandering, strategically shaping districts to gain a political advantage. To combat this practice, HR 1 would require each state to develop a non-partisan committee within its legislative branch. The committee would consist of 15 members, including five each from the majority party, the minority party, and a third party, who are not lobbyists, donors, or relatives of candidates running for public office. The committee would be tasked with equalizing opportunity for all races and groups, and equalizing population within districts, while giving no credence to voting history or party affiliation of voters. Information on committee members would be made publicly available online, and all meetings regarding redistricting would be carried out in public places around the state.
Another scourge of American politics, campaign finance violations, is addressed by HR 1. The bill, citing the Panama Papers and other revelations, points to widespread corruption and calls for increased transparency in election financing. The bill places stricter restrictions on foreign funding and requires disclosure of large individual and corporate donations. HR 1 requires all foreign agents to register in a timely manner with the federal government. Such agents must report anything of financial value which was conferred to any federal or state officeholder, and failure to register in a timely manner will carry large fines. HR 1 also sets restrictions on Presidential inaugural contributions, including a $50,000 individual contribution limit and the prohibition of contributions from corporations, non-individuals, intermediaries, and foreign nationals. Coordination between candidates and Super-PACs is also curtailed by the bill.
Beyond simply disavowing large and foreign contributions, HR 1 actively encourages small-dollar contributions. Under the bill, contributions between $1 and $200 would be “matched” by the federal government for qualifying candidates. These federally-subsidized contributions could only be used for qualified campaign expenditures and would be subject to Congressional audit and reporting. A candidate also could not spend more than $50,000 of their personal or immediate family’s funds on their campaign, and total qualified contributions could not exceed $1,000 from any single individual or group. All of this, in concert with limits on national party committee and overall total contribution limits, holds potential to reshape the landscape of modern campaign finance. One point at which some may take umbrage is the allowance of campaign expenditures for “personal use services.” Under HR 1, candidates could use campaign funds to cover expenses “necessary” for them to run for office, including child care, elder care, professional development services, and health insurance. While the bill certainly works against corruption, putting the burden of child care, health insurance, and other personal costs upon taxpayers, via federally-matched campaign contributions, may prove an unpopular proposition to swallow.
HR 1 also requires advertising transparency, noting that online advertisements are easier to manipulate and disseminate anonymously. The bill attempts to crack down on ad spending by prohibited foreign nationals, requiring disclosure of a trove of information surrounding each advertisement. In fact, all advertisers spending over $500 would have their ad, target audience, candidate/issue supported, and contact information mandatorily provided on an online, public platform.
Ethics and Integrity While in Office
The provisions of HR 1 don’t stop on election day. The bill addresses ethical conflicts for officeholders and appointees, providing specific recusal and disclosure requirements for various situations. Any individual appointed by the President or their spouse would be required to recuse themselves from any matter (such as an investigation) concerning the individual who appointed them. HR 1 also prohibits executive branch employees to conduct business with former employers or clients and requires the President and Vice President to divest any conflicting assets through the use of blind trusts. Elected and appointed officials would also be required to divulge donations which organizations made to influence their policy stances in the four years prior to appointment or election.
Transition team members for incoming administrations are also not immune to ethical scrutiny. Public records of information such as previous employment, sources of income, transition roles, policy issues worked on, and any recusals or conflicts of interest would be compiled and made available for each team member. Similarly, legislators in Congress would be prohibited from pursuing legislation which explicitly favors limited groups, such as themselves, their friends, or their immediate family. The bill also asks for stronger oversight over Presidential conflicts of interest and the granting of security clearances to government officials. Appointees in executive agencies must sign ethics pledges, promising not to accept gifts from or act as lobbyists, although the ability of the President to waive this requirement when it is in the “public interest” is unsettlingly subjective.
One of the most important portions of HR 1 is also the last, “Title X, Presidential and Vice Presidential Tax Transparency”. In this section, law makers take direct aim at what was, until the 2016 Presidential election, an implicit historical precedent: release of candidate tax returns. Donald Trump became the only major-party Presidential candidate not to release tax returns since Republican Gerald Ford in 1976, setting off a firestorm of speculation over his financial holdings and ties. In response, HR 1 requires that all major party candidates for President and Vice President submit, within 15 days of becoming a candidate, ten years of federal tax returns to the Federal Election Commission. If enacted, HR 1 would also require the sitting president (i.e. Trump) to release ten years of returns within 30 days. Shortly thereafter, the returns would be released to the public by the Federal Election Commission. While the method for enforcement of these requirements is not fully spelled out in the bill, HR 1 could be a significant step in restoring accountability to America’s highest offices.
Proponents of HR 1 tout the bill as fervently democratic, non-partisan legislation, with little room for controversy. Opponents could accuse the bill of curtailing states’ rights, especially relating to redistricting and election management, and drastically altering voting and finance laws to produce favorable results for particular candidates. In reality, the truth is somewhere in between. While HR 1 moves the discussion forward and certainly has the noblest of intentions, it accomplishes its goals with substantial Congressional oversight, ambitious finance and voting rights changes, and a distinctively new dynamic between federal and state governments in election administration. Clearly, change is due when well over one-third of Americans fail to exercise their democratic right to vote, and more yet are denied this right. As HR 1 stares congressional defeat in the face, its proponents carry the burden of proof into the 2020 election, when the American people themselves will decide whether these reforms, and the Democrats behind them, deserve their vote.