Political Scientists in Support of the For The People Act of 2021
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We, the undersigned political scientists, write at this moment of crisis for American democracy to urge Congress to pass H.R.1 and S.1., the For The People Act of 2021.
A strong commitment to democratic ideals has long animated political science. We write now because the urgency of the moment demands that we speak out. The stakes could not be higher. The crisis of American democracy is upon us, with consequences none of us can or should ignore. The window of opportunity for reform is likely to be brief. Congressional inaction will not simply preserve the status quo—it will invite further attacks on American democracy.
This year alone, a quarter of state legislatures, all controlled by Republicans, have passed restrictive voting laws that make it more difficult for Americans to vote. These laws shorten windows for early voting, restrict access to mail voting, tighten or impose voter ID requirements, make it easier to remove voters from the voter rolls, eliminate Election Day registration, and reduce the number of polling places available to voters.
The Republican Party’s attacks on voting rights weaken democracy for all Americans, but they disproportionately burden communities of color, the poor, young people, and less frequent voters. This is by design: the purpose of these laws is to ensure that Republican-leaning voters constitute a majority of votes cast, even if they are a minority of the electorate.
Efforts to restrict the vote, though alarming, represent only one threat to the health and stability of American democracy. Special interest groups and lobbyists wield outsized power in the halls of Congress, with their influence often unknown to most Americans. And most pressingly, state legislatures increasingly engage in extreme partisan gerrymandering, which dilutes the voting power of millions of Americans and risks enshrining minority rule for the foreseeable future.
The For The People Act would counteract these threats to democracy by expanding voting access, creating new campaign finance and ethics rules that make officeholders more accountable to voters, and stopping extreme partisan gerrymandering.
The right to vote is sacred and “is preservative of other basic civil and political rights.” Access to the ballot should be expanded, not burdened or restricted. Pro-democracy voting reforms, like those included in the For the People Act, help ensure that all Americans, regardless of place or station, can freely engage in the electoral process. Federal action to protect voting rights is urgently needed to counteract restrictive voting laws at the state level.
Automatic voter registration (AVR) and same-day registration (SDR) would remove major hurdles to voting, bringing US voter registration in line with other democracies. Citizens who interact with government agencies like the DMV would be automatically registered so they can vote or not vote as they choose. Everyone else will be able to register at their polling place. Research shows that AVR significantly boosts voter registration rates, and SDR increases turnout for everyone, especially young people.
Making Election Day a federal holiday would bring the United States in line with most other democracies. As research consistently shows, the most commonly cited reasons for not voting are time and scheduling constraints.
Expanding vote-by-mail options makes voting more convenient and accessible. Studies have shown that vote-by-mail policies increase voter turnout, especially among young people, the working class, and voters of color. Where implemented, vote-by-mail is popular, as it helps voters avoid long lines at the polling place and gives them more time with their ballot to decide how to vote.
Additional voting rights provisions—including reversing strict voter ID laws in the states, authorizing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, and restoring voting rights to ex-felons—are critical to ensuring that all American citizens are able to vote.
Studies have shown that these reforms increase voter turnout to varying degrees. More than that, these reforms make voting less burdensome and less costly. There is also no evidence that any of the pro-democracy reforms proposed would reduce turnout, threaten the integrity or security of elections, or otherwise weaken democracy.
As political scientists, we understand the importance of legislative compromise. However, there are no studies that find voter ID laws have any positive effect on turnout or prevent fraud. As a policy, it finds no support in the literature. In a democracy, the exacting burden of proof should be on those who seek to burden or restrict the franchise. And this is a burden that proponents of voter ID laws simply cannot meet.
The campaign finance provisions would directly address the disproportionate influence that wealthy Americans and corporations have over elections and policymaking. Current campaign finance regulations are woefully inadequate: candidates have little incentive to follow the law or to prioritize voters’ policy preferences, and super PACs and other groups regularly flood elections with money from anonymous donors.
The For The People Act would establish a viable small-donor public financing system that congressional candidates can use to fund their campaigns, opening the political system to Americans traditionally left out due to socioeconomic status and background. It would increase transparency in online political advertising and in political spending by dark money groups and super PACs. And it would reinvigorate a broken Federal Election Commission that has been rendered inoperable by partisan gridlock.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, the anti-gerrymandering provisions would prohibit the current practice of drawing legislative districts with extreme partisan bias. Partisan gerrymandering distorts the democratic representation of Americans. Left unchecked, it threatens to solidify minority rule in state legislatures and Congress. If this happens, America will no longer be a democracy. As we enter a redistricting cycle, Congress must act to prevent the kind of extreme gerrymandering we have witnessed in recent years.
A Do or Die Moment For American Democracy
As we state at the outset, this is a moment of crisis for American democracy. Time is running out for those who believe in its ideals to do anything about it. Members of Congress take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States—a document that, over time, has come to guarantee the rights and liberties of more Americans from more diverse backgrounds.
From abolitionists to suffragists, to those who marched and were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to those who take to the streets today, countless Americans have put their lives and livelihoods on the line to expand and protect voting rights. As a result, enshrined in the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th Amendments is “the right of citizens of the United States to vote”–a right that “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state” on account of race, sex, economic status, or age.
Each of these amendments explicitly states that “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
At a time when voting rights are under assault across the country, Congress should not allow any obstacle—including the filibuster—to prevent it from fulfilling this sacred obligation. In the face of grave threats to our democracy, an absolute allegiance to the filibuster in its current form is both short-sighted and reckless.
The For The People Act is a pro-democracy law designed to counteract anti-democratic forces in the states. But it is more than that. Its passage would represent a major step forward in strengthening democracy for all Americans.
We call on members of Congress to act urgently to pass this important legislation, and we encourage our fellow citizens to demand action now.