With national politics at one of the most contentious levels in memory, areas of agreement can feel like tiny islands in a sea of acrimony.
Yet one thing that the vast majority of Americans will say is that they do not want a government run by the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. They do not want working people and people without access to billionaires’ bank accounts to be shut out of running for office, or prevented from voting. And they definitely do not want their elected representatives in the pockets of big corporations.
All of this means that one bill currently in the Senate, the For the People Act, should enjoy strong support — because it would go a long way toward preventing all those things. As the bill moved through the House, public support for it polled at 68% among likely voters, including 57% of Republicans. Yet the bill is frequently described, including in this paper, as facing grim prospects in the Senate.
That should not be the case.
At its core, the For the People Act would throw open the doors to more participation in our electoral politics by citizens who are too often shut out. It would do this by breaking the stranglehold of big money and wealthy corporations on our politics, and by shoring up voting rights.
The act takes direct aim at the overwhelming and corrupting political influence of the wealthy and of corporations. It creates a small-donor matching system for campaigns. It is critical to note that the funds for this come from money paid in legal fines by lawbreaking businesses, not taxpayer money as has been widely alleged.
This system greatly amplifies the power of small donors, and it also opens up a financing avenue for candidates who don’t want, or can’t get, money from big business and the rich. Those small donors and candidates are more likely to be working people, women, people of color and younger people.
It’s not hard to see how the benefit of reducing the influence of big money extends to policymaking. Those elected to office are less beholden to wealthy special interests if those interests aren’t bankrolling their campaigns. Those in office are also more likely to share the day-to-day experiences of their constituents, and to bring that perspective to their work.
On a parallel front, the act is a powerful tool to make exercising legitimate voting rights more accessible to more Americans, including shift workers, people with disabilities, people without reliable transportation, rural residents, people of color, young people and senior citizens.
Right now, these voters suffer disproportionately from steps to limit access to the ballot — steps that are being proposed in more and more states, even as other states work to expand ballot access. Asked why restrictive steps are being introduced, proponents will argue for election security — but “follow the money” is a useful maxim here as it is in other contexts.
Simply put, powerful corporate and special interests have every reason to finance candidates and policies that lean toward suppressing the votes of working people, young Americans, Black and brown Americans and other voters, because they believe these voters do not support anti-worker, anti-consumer, anti-patient agendas. And their influence is formidable: According to data from the Brennan Center, in 2016 just 400 political donors gave a combined $1.5 billion — more than some 5 million small donors combined.
The For the People Act would counteract this by doing away with voter suppression tactics that are being wielded against Americans by politicians whose interests lie more with Wall Street than Main Street. It would expand access to voting with automatic voter registration and online registration, something that is long overdue in a world where we conduct virtually all other business on the Internet.
It would create a pilot program for people with disabilities to register and vote from home. It calls for early and absentee voting, and eases access to voting by mail — which has been used for years as standard practice in several states, with no problems.
The act also mandates election security measures, calling for grants to states and localities to upgrade their equipment and to audit their results for accuracy, among other steps.
S1 is not perfect — no legislation is — but on balance, it would bring our country’s ideal of a government for the people, by the people, closer to reality. The American people want that; their elected representatives should want it too.
• Ben Jealous, the former president and CEO of the NAACP, is president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation.
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