Congressman Kweisi Mfume (Courtesy Photo)
By Congressman Kweisi Mfume
Democracy is supposed to reflect the will of the people. For many years, all across America, men and women have fought and died to protect the right to vote. In this country we have long cherished the notion that the citizens will determine the direction that we take, rather than having that direction dictated to them by the prevailing powers above.
Of course, we should not forget that the philosophy of rule by the people has often been administered in an uneven manner, with many policies being implemented at various points in history which sought to disenfranchise large segments of the voting public. For 200 years African Americans were held in bondage, while only counting as three-fifths of a person. Jim Crow laws systematically stripped Black Americans of their right to full participation in our society, including their place on the voter rolls. Women were not allowed to cast the ballot throughout the United States until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
That philosophy has recently come under attack by a myriad of tactics designed to roll back the control that the American people have over their governance. It began again in 2010 with the Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court asserted that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political campaigns. In 2013 they went even further. The Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County vs. Holder that parts of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 were unconstitutional, and that state and local governments with a history of discrimination would no longer require federal preclearance before changing their voting laws. This was followed by a slew of new regulations that were clearly written with the intention of suppressing the vote.
These laws have had a pernicious effect. Within five years of the Shelby ruling, almost 1,000 polling places had closed their doors, a good portion of them in predominantly African American areas. People who lack a photo ID are denied the right to vote, even if they can provide other forms of identification that prove who they are. Special interests, super PACs, and wealthy donors are bankrolling campaigns and swaying elections to a previously unseen degree.
That is why I have cosponsored H.R. 1, the John Sarbanes effort, also known as the For the People Act. In an effort to restore the central tenants of our democratic institutions, this legislation would establish nationwide laws and guidelines that would enhance access to the ballot, scale back the influence of powerful interests, and make certain the people’s political inclinations, as shown in free and fair elections, can be carried out.
The For the People Act starts by establishing automatic voter registration for federal elections. The Brennan Center for Justice has estimated that this could add up to 50 million Americans to the voter rolls. It further commits to making it easier to vote by ensuring that polling places have adequate staff and voting systems, which will reduce the amount of time spent waiting in line. It is also unreasonable for states to suddenly purge legitimate voters from their registration lists and H.R. 1 will set rules and conditions for fairly removing individuals from the rolls.
The For the People Act would expand people’s ability to vote by requiring states to allow them to vote by mail in federal elections. The bill would also ease the burden on same-day voters by making Election Day a federal holiday. Other provisions include requiring states to offer same-day voter registration for federal elections and to offer online voter registration. Finally, it would make it mandatory for states to hold early voting for at least two weeks prior to Election Day.
Gerrymandering has created congressional district boundaries that are designed to produce partisan advantage for one side, at the expense of having a U.S. House of Representatives that truly represents the will of the people. The For the People Act tackles gerrymandering by requiring states to use independent commissions to draw congressional district lines.
The proliferation of dark money into politics in recent years has been swift and damaging. The For the People Act will shed some light onto these questionable finances. We must have transparency and accountability in the system that governs our political campaigns. The For the People Act will force super PACs to disclose their donors, so you know exactly who is paying for the political ads you see and hear on TV, radio, and the internet.
Last week we embraced and celebrated Juneteenth Day and everything that it means to so many of us. We must also remember what that delayed single act of independence represents to our democracy, a democracy which is still far from the creation of a more perfect union. Let’s honor ourselves by rededicating all of our energy and commitment to the standards and values that have long been expected from such a democracy. The For the People Act will take a major step toward making sure that this nation lives up to those expectations.
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