Senate Committee on Rules and Administration Hearing on S1, the “For the People Act of 2021” March 24, 2021
Chairwoman Klobuchar, Ranking Member Blunt, and members of the Committee: we deeply appreciate and commend you for holding this timely and critical hearing today on the For the People Act. My name is Virginia Kase, and I am the CEO of the League of Women Voters of the United States (the “League”). The League is a century-seasoned federated organization with more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country who carry out our mission to empower voters and defend democracy. Our core work is intimately tied to several of the provisions of this bill, many of which the League has fought for decades to achieve.
The League of Women Voters of the United States appreciates the opportunity to share with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee our strong support for S1, the For the People Act, the transformational democracy reform package that makes elections fairer and restores power to the hands of the American people.
As an organization with a mission of empowering voters and defending democracy, the League of Women Voters is proud to support legislation that does the same. We urge the Rules Committee to prioritize passage of this pro-voter, anti-corruption legislation in the 117th Congress. The time for reform is now, and the American people cannot wait for our democracy to fix itself.
Throughout our 101-year history, the League of Women Voters has worked to achieve “a democracy for the people, by the people, all the people” by registering voters, fighting unfair district maps in court, and advocating in Congress for fair election processes. Despite our efforts, there have always been forces at play who wish to undermine our democracy and limit participation in our elections. Never before has this been more apparent.
The 2020 election underscored the urgent need for major democracy reform. Across the nation, Americans experienced unprecedented voter suppression attempts, historic levels of dark money were spent to drown out the voices of everyday Americans, and there were rampant ethical abuses by special interests. Now, many state legislatures are trying to codify these anti-voter abuses in their 2021 sessions.
The League believes the For the People Act addresses these pressing issues facing our democracy. S1 is the most expansive democracy reform agenda seen since the Voting Rights Act. It includes elements that align with many of the League’s long-held positions. The League of Women Voters is advocating for the prioritization of the following essential elements of the bill:
RESTORE THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT
Restoring the Voting Rights Act will strengthen our elections by cutting back obstructive laws that have kept eligible voters from exercising their right at the ballot box.
Since the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision rolled back key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, we have seen the process of voting become more challenging, especially for women, communities of color, and low-income individuals. In recent elections, voters have faced a variety of obstacles, from reduced polling places to long lines, to strict voter identification requirements, to the removal of lawfully registered voters from the rolls. The Voting Rights Act was created to ensure that every American has an equal right to vote. In response to the Shelby decision, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (which is also a component of the For the People Act) appropriately considers the issues raised by the U.S. Supreme Court by adjusting the lookback period for pre-clearance and identifying updated factors to determine which jurisdictions would be subject to the Act. Ensuring voting rights protections is a core principle of the League of Women Voters, and we believe that S1 rightfully restores the VRA provisions to strengthen voting rights and protect all eligible Americans at the ballot box.
IMPLEMENT FAIR REDISTRICTING
It is time to end gerrymandering once and for all, so that voters select their elected officials – not the other way around. Additionally, without passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, this will be the first redistricting cycle conducted without the full protections of the VRA.
Across the country, in legislatures, in court, and on the ballot, the League has fought against efforts to draw unfair election maps regardless of party, to maintain power. Gerrymandering silences the voters and residents of disputed districts who, instead of electing officials to represent their interests, are selected by the politicians working to serve themselves. S1 will establish clear rules around state redistricting processes so maps can be drawn fairly via Independent Redistricting Commissions, standardized criteria, and a transparent process. These provisions, combined with the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will ensure fair and equal representation for all people across the country.
- Independent Redistricting Commissions: The current default redistricting process gives state legislatures control over the map-drawing. This breeds unfairness and bias, as the people whose power is determined by maps also have the power to draw the maps. The For the People Act strives to limit the redistricting power of legislatures and requires the creation of Independent Redistricting Commissions.
- Standardized Criteria: There is no set criteria for the redistricting process in our country. The For the People Act puts in place a set of standardized rules which must be followed nationwide, such as outlawing partisan gerrymandering and protecting communities of interest. Having standardized criteria will ensure that maps are drawn fairly and neutralize potential bias.
- Transparency: Without openness and accountability, the current redistricting process is very much a secret in most communities. The For the People Act includes greater transparency requirements. The bill requires all Independent Redistricting Commission business be conducted in open public meetings, subject to oversight, with all data and other information made available to the public and all official communications subject to disclosure. The more transparent the redistricting process is, the more accountable it will be to the American people.
EXPAND VOTER REGISTRATION
We must modernize the voter registration process through the expansion of automatic voter registration, online voter registration, and same-day registration. The 2020 election demonstrated how these provisions can lead to increased voter turnout that benefits both parties, but more importantly our democracy, which is strongest when more people participate.
As election observers and partners in the nonpartisan Election Protection Coalition, the League has seen first-hand the current problems within our election system that prevent the participation of eligible voters. S1 will modernize our voter registration processes, which will go a long way towards addressing these barriers.
- Automatic Voter Registration (AVR): AVR shifts voter registration from an “opt-in” system to an “opt-out" process. Every eligible citizen who interacts with designated government agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, a public university, or a social service agency, will be automatically registered to vote unless they decline registration. With AVR included in the For the People Act, we could see as many as 50 million new voters registered, as we did in the 2020 elections.
- Online Voter Registration: The For the People Act requires that all states offer online voter registration, which allows voters to register and update their voter information using an online platform. This serves to remove barriers to registration, speed up the registration process, and make voter registration more accessible.
- Same-Day Registration (SDR): Same-day registration allows any non-registered eligible person who shows up to the polls on Election Day the right to register to vote and cast their ballot the same day. The League pushed lawmakers to include this provision in the For the People Act, which offers an important avenue for more voters to participate and have their voices heard.
- Returning Citizens Voting Rights: Restoring voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals ensures that if an individual has completed their sentence and is living in the community, they are eligible to participate in all federal elections. It goes further to require that states provide written notification to individuals when their voting rights have been restored. The For the People Act commits to restoring the voting rights of previously incarcerated individuals nationwide.
- Reform Voter Purges: We all want clean voter rolls; however, egregious voter purges are a tactic too often used to suppress eligible voters. The For the People Act ensures that a voter cannot be removed from the rolls simply because they have not voted in a recent election. This provision tackled in the bill also requires that if a voter is purged, they must receive notice of their removal and be permitted the opportunity to remedy their registration before being removed.
CREATE A NEW PUBLIC FINANCING SYSTEM
We need to stabilize our system so that Big Money does not set Washington’s agenda or decide who gets a seat at the table.
Corruption occurs in Washington when wealthy donors and powerful interests use political money to buy influence. Without a new public financing system, there is no way to end corruption in the nation’s capital. Passing citizen-funded campaign programs -- a simple, proven solution that amplifies everyday voters’ voices in our elections -- will ensure any eligible candidate can run for office without relying on Big Money to compete.
- Donation Transparency: The For the People Act requires all groups that spend significant sums on campaigns to disclose the donors who pay for that spending. It also changes the rules governing online campaign ads versus traditional media. Currently, online campaign ads are distinct from traditional media, and thus not accountable to the transparency laws that govern traditional media ads. However, the For the People Act requires the transparency laws that apply to traditional media to also apply to online ads. It goes further and requires the largest online platforms, with over 50 million unique visitors per month, to establish a public file of requests to purchase political ads.
- FEC Reform: The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the department that oversees and enforces campaign finance laws. But for too long it has been hobbled by gridlock and inaction. The For the People Act breaks through the gridlock at the agency by reducing the number of commissioners from six to five, with no more than two affiliated with any party, effectively requiring one commissioner to be a tie-breaking independent. The bill also prevents commissioners from serving beyond their term expiration, to ensure that leadership and membership changes regularly. Finally, it strengthens the FEC's power to investigate alleged campaign finance violations and dismiss frivolous complaints.
- Small Donor Financing: Small donor provisions will help many first-time candidates, candidates of color, and female candidates, who may not have connections to a Big Money network but have a swell of local support. Importantly, this system is not funded by taxpayer money but instead by a nominal surcharge on criminal and civil penalties assessed against corporate wrongdoers. Small donor financing is an important inclusion in the For the People Act which will improve our public financing system and create more equity for candidates who represent the American people.
The For the People Act is the democracy reform bill the American people want and deserve. Today, far too many people are turned off or turned away from the political process. This should not happen in the greatest country in the world. The provisions in this legislation will lead to greater trust in government and elected leaders by creating fairness, transparency, and accountability.
The League of Women Voters believes that S1 will fundamentally strengthen our democratic system by restoring the Voting Rights Act, modernizing our voter registration system, establishing criteria and transparency to limit partisan gerrymandering, and creating a level playing field through reforming campaign finance and ensuring contributions are transparent.
For over a century, the League of Women Voters has worked with Congress to protect the right of all citizens to vote. We urge the Senate to continue this essential work and join the House of Representatives in passing the transformational election reform that is the For the People Act.
CONTACT: Sarah Courtney | 202-263-1332 | [email protected]