The U.S. House of Representatives will soon advance the most significant electoral integrity bill since the 1965 Voting Rights Act for a floor vote. H.R.1, the For the People Act, is comprehensive legislation that would help modernize outdated election practices and curb the corrupting influence of money in politics. If you care about good governance and transparent policymaking, or are concerned about science being sidelined while entrenched interests shape policy to their benefit, you should check out H.R.1.
The bill is far from perfect; it will probably not go far enough to protect voters through national standards for ballot design, election data collection and public records provision; it will probably not repeal the prohibition against proportional representation for the House; it can’t eliminate the capacity of powerful interests to insulate themselves from evidence-based testimony and public accountability; and it doesn’t grow unicorns or rainbows. Nevertheless, there is a lot to like in H.R.1, and there may be amendments to improve it further. As it is, H.R.1 would strengthen our democracy in six significant ways:
1. Eliminate barriers to voter registration
Many hurdles make it difficult for voters to get and stay registered, which results in the United States exhibiting excessively low voter turnout. H.R.1’s requirements for automatic voter registration (AVR), early voting and same-day registration (SDR) would greatly expand the electorate and encourage greater participation, which will lead to more accurate representation.
With AVR, eligible citizens are added to voter rolls and their registration status is updated whenever they interact with another government agency such as their local Department of Motor Vehicles, unless they opt out. The implementation of AVR has the additional advantages of keeping voter rolls more accurate through electronic transfer of information across agencies, as well as reduced costs associated with data entry and error correction, mailing, and shipping.
More than a dozen states, led by Republicans and Democrats, have already adopted AVR in an effort to reduce discrimination and remove barriers to participation. SDR also ensures that no eligible voters fall through the cracks. Further, pre-registration requirements for 16- and 17-year-olds will help prepare younger citizens for the responsibilities of citizenship.
2. Protect voter lists from manipulation
Removal of voters from registration lists should be based on positive evidence of ineligibility, not failure to vote. H.R.1 helps ensure that states’ voter registration lists are protected from discriminatory manipulation. In light of voter suppression tactics like those identified in Georgia in 2018, and a lack of appropriate court oversight, H.R.1 prohibits voter purging based on demonstrably flawed “exact match” criteria.
3. Expand early and provisional voting
Voting inequalities result when people with fewer resources (such as time, money, and work-time flexibility) find it harder to vote. The For the People Act would require states to implement early-in-person voting at least two weeks prior to the end of a federal election period, along with allowing voting by mail, and make Election Day a national holiday. Previous research has shown that restricting early-in-person voting can lower turnout. Congress ought to provide every institutional opportunity to vote available, given the pervasive impact of socioeconomic inequalities on voter participation. H.R.1 would make sure than every potential voter would be able to cast a verifiable provisional ballot.
4. Reign in the abuses of gerrymandering and partisan bias
Voters deserve fair representation, yet gerrymandering and partisan bias in redistricting means that our votes are not counted equally. State political parties bias representation so as to maximize partisan advantage. This results in distorted policymaking in Congress. Non-partisan, citizen-focused redistricting commissions for drawing all Congressional districts, as is done in California and several other states, would be required under the For the People Act.
We need these reforms, in part because the United States has the lowest level of electoral integrity among advanced industrial democracies. Stronger ethics rules are also needed to ensure our officials can make decisions in the public interest based on evidence, not unduly influenced by their connections to special interests. For the first time since Transparency International data have been collected, the United States has fallen out of the top 20 among the least corrupt governments in 2018. As figure 1 shows, the United States is behind most of the advanced industrial nations along these measures.
The heads of federal science agencies must be free to carry out the missions of those agencies, not do the bidding of regulated industries. Yet, this is exactly what happened in the cases of former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Both Trump-appointed officials were seeped in ethics scandals during their tenure, with several instances of using their positions of power to give favors to their oil and gas industry connections and weaken public health and environmental protections that were inconvenient for regulated industries. H.R.1 also addresses these institutional weaknesses.
5. Limit the power of monied interests to drown out science and information in political debates
The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC opened the floodgates to large sums of anonymous money pouring into our political system. To address this and other challenges in our campaign finance system, H.R.1 requires that publicly traded corporations disclose more about their political spending.
H.R.1 also authorizes the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies disclose their political spending to their shareholders and the public. We need prompt disclosure of all political expenditures, and a prohibition against any foreign campaign spending, as laid out in the disclosure section in the For the People Act.
The Federal Elections Commission is also strengthened under H.R.1 to enforce campaign finance regulations. Right now, the FEC is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and is notoriously dysfunctional. By reducing the current six commissioners to five (two Republicans, two Democrats and one independent) the body would be able to act on majority rule.
Public financing of campaigns also helps reduce the political impact that economic inequality exerts on the election process. One innovative pilot program in H.R.1 is a $25 voucher for registered voters that could revolutionize campaign finance. Such a voucher program, like that implemented in Seattle, Washington empowers voters who can individually decide which campaigns to support, while encouraging candidates to seek out small donations instead of relying on a small number of wealthy, private donors.
6. Clean up corruption of officials by tackling conflicts of interest
The For the People Act would restrain actors from engaging in blatant conflicts of interest as we have seen in the Trump administration. In addition to prohibiting election officials from oversight of their own elections as happened in Georgia, these laws would also require the federal Office of Government Ethics to issue rules on addressing conflicts of interest.
Individuals nominated or appointed to Senate-confirmed positions and certain other senior government officials would be required to disclose contributions or solicitations made by or on behalf of entities they regulate. These individuals and their families would also have to disclose certain types of gifts. Publicly traded corporations would also have to disclose political expenditures to their shareholders and to the general public through the Securities and Exchange Commission. Together, these reforms would ensure more transparent governance and oversight, and reduce the risk that science is sidelined to the advantage of powerful interests.
Let’s Protect Science and Democracy
Protecting democracy and science is not a partisan cause. Every reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by a Republican president. The last revisions were passed by a Republican-led House & Senate. The politicization of science, like the politicization of voting rights, is a detrimental threat to democracy that we must avoid. The reforms outlined here can help ensure our federal elected officials fairly represent us and are free to use science to make decisions in the public interest.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.