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Brandi Collins-Dexter is a senior fellow at Color Of Change and visiting fellow at the Harvard Shorenstein Center on media, politics and public policy. Robert Weissman is the president of Public Citizen. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
One of the throughlines of U.S. history is the progressive expansion of the franchise thanks to the struggle of oppressed Americans to make real the most basic promise of a constitutional democracy: “One person, one vote.”
In recent decades, however, there has been a sharp turnaround in this American story, and the country is now facing a full-blown crisis of democracy. States across the country are now rushing to pass laws designed to block and suppress the votes of people of color. Intense gerrymandering is stripping voters, particularly voters of color, of meaningful influence over who they can elect. And Big Money dominance of elections is concentrating power in the hands of the rich, white few at the expense of everyone else.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, if these trends aren’t reversed, the United States is on course to cease being a democracy. Instead, we stand to be ruled by a dangerous marriage of corporatist, white supremacist and fascistic factions.
The good news is, a far-reaching solution is at hand: The For the People Act, the most transformative, pro-democracy legislation since the Voting Rights Act, recently passed the House of Representatives. This legislation, which would counter voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering and Big Money dominance of politics, will soon come to a vote in the Senate.
The passage of the act could counter the onslaught of attacks on the right to vote on a number of fronts:
Voter suppression: In 2020, expanded early voting and voting-by-mail rules adopted to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic helped spur the largest voter turnout in more than 120 years. But now state legislatures are rushing to make it even harder to vote.
Currently, 43 states are considering a total of more than 250 bills that restrict access to the ballot. These bills follow a pattern of cutting back on early voting, ending same-day registration and imposing voter ID requirements.
The For the People Act would ensure every American could vote early or by mail. It would adopt automatic voter registration and mandate same-day registration.
Extreme gerrymandering: Drawing bizarrely shaped districts has been used on both sides of the aisle to secure partisan advantage. It’s also been used to limit the influence of voters of color by packing Black and brown voters into a small number of congressional districts. State legislators are now preparing a new round of redistricting.
The For the People Act would end extreme gerrymandering by creating independent commissions, rather than partisan state legislators, to undertake redistricting. This is a tried-and-true approach already employed by many states.
Big-money dominance: Reflecting the enormous racial wealth gap in the United States, a political giving system that rewards and empowers the super-rich inevitably exhibits extreme racial disparities.
A Public Citizen analysis found that, from 2010-2018, majority-white ZIP codes gave about $7 billion to political campaigns — roughly 20 times the amount from majority-minority ZIP codes. Or consider super PACs. Public Citizen’s analysis of super PAC donors in the 2017-2018 election cycle found that 97 out of the 100 largest individual donors to outside spending groups were white.
The For the People Act would do away with our Big Money-biased campaign finance system. Instead, it would encourage candidates to collect small donations (under $200) and provide a 6-1 public match for those donations. That would shift power away from corporate donors to everyday people. It would also empower diverse, upstart candidates currently locked out of opportunities to represent their community in public office.
The democratic backsliding of recent decades is now gaining dangerous momentum. If we don’t want to live in a world of entrenched racial hierarchy and oligarchic rule, we need a fundamental change in direction. We need The For the People Act.