Democrats' chances of passing the For The People Act
, a broad plan to reform the country's democracy
, are dwindling.
Their razor-thin Senate majority means they lack the votes
to end the filibuster Republicans
will use to block the legislation, and even if the party had the will to overcome the 60-vote requirement, key Democrat Joe Manchin
of West Virginia
has stated that he prefers narrower legislation.
Some congressional Democrats, including veteran members of the Congressional Black Caucus, support Manchin's idea of focusing on voting rights
; however, it would be a huge political mistake, abandoning the most popular provisions of the legislation and turning the bill from a winner in key swing states and congressional districts into another iteration of what many voters
see as partisan bickering.
The For The People Act, also known as HR 1 or S 1 low-number designations intended to signal its importance to the Democratic Party
– is a sprawling beast of more than 60 pieces of individual legislation stapled together. Its provisions cover everything from early voting
and election administration to blocking foreign interference, encouraging members of Congress to rely on small-dollar donations a
The legislation, on the whole, is popular. According to a recording of conservative activists discussing how to stop the measure obtained by The New Yorker, they admit that turning public opinion against the bill would be "incredibly difficult." However, the most popular parts of the legislation have always been the provisions aimed at limiting the political influence of corporations and the ultra-wealthy.
That issue has been a political winner for Democrats in each of the last two election cycles. Dozens of House candidates swore off corporate PAC money
in 2018, helping the party reclaim control of the chamber. Then, Democrats hammered Georgia GOP
Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue with ads claiming they had used their positions to enrich themselves en route to regaining control of the Senate in 2020.
“Taking on corruption in Washington was an essential message for Democrats in regaining control of the House in 2018, and again in those Georgia Senate races
in 2020,” said Meredith Kelly, a Democratic operative who was communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when the party flipped the House three years ago.
However, it is clear that the party is not always emphasizing that message. Much of the day-to-day debate and media
coverage of the bill has focused on the voting rights provisions. When President Joe Biden
called for the passage of HR 1 in his address to Congress last month, he mentioned the need to “protect the sacred right to vote,” but not the legislation’s anti-corruption provisions.
Following his loss in the 2020 election
, former President Donald Trump
took the GOP’s long history of lying about widespread voter fraud to a new level, culminating in the Capitol riot
on Jan. 6. Since then, Republican state legislators across the country have moved to make it more difficult to vote, often specifically targeting methamphetamine users.
While many of the For The People Act's voting provisions are popular, such as mandating early voting periods and same-day voter registration, public polls show that most Americans support requiring voters to show ID at the polls, which HR 1 would prohibit.
More broadly, voting rights provisions arouse strong emotions among partisans on both sides while doing little to sway swing voters. Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report, wrote last month that two focus groups of persuadable voters she recently observed thought “fights over voter laws were more about political gamesmanship.”
“Whereas many activists see a threat to our political system’s very foundation, these voters see crass political calculations,” Walter wrote.
Republican advertising campaigns opposing the For The People Act also demonstrate the GOP's view of voting rights provisions as the legislation's political weak point.
One Nation, a political nonprofit controlled by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
's allies, launched a nearly $2 million ad campaign this week criticizing the legislation, focusing on provisions that would eliminate voter ID requirements and "give Washington bureaucrats control of our elections
On the other side of the debate, End Citizens United's $12 million television ad campaign focuses on the idea that Democrats are reining in corporate special interests while only briefly mentioning that the law protects the right to vote.
In one of the advertisements, a narrator says, “Billionaires and special interests, your day is nearly done.”
The voting rights provisions were noted as the “most animating on both sides” of the partisan divide by Maryland
Rep. John Sarbanes, the lead sponsor of the House version of the legislation, but the anti-corruption measures, which include strengthening ethics requirements for executive appointees and judges, and forcing the disclosure of anonymous political spending, passed muster across party lines.
“Those parts of the bill are broadly supported, even by most Republicans out there in the country,” Sarbanes said, adding that “when you lift those up, it puts McConnell and his allies on the defensive because they know that anti-corruption sentiment is very strong, even among their own constituents.”
Right now, Sarbanes needs to find a way to pass the legislation, and he believes Manchin's suggestion will make it even more difficult. The plan is already the result of extensive intraparty negotiations, and Sarbanes believes the possibility of attracting GOP support for voting rights legislation is nonexistent.
“To be honest, I don’t trust them,” Sarbanes said of Republicans, adding, “I just don’t see any intersection of real reform and getting ten Republican votes.”
The obstacles to passing the legislation with only Democratic support are clear: Manchin’s opposition to moving
the legislation at all, and Arizona
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s opposition to eliminating the filibuster. However, private Democratic polling paid for by End Citizens United and obtained by Stardia shows that HR 1’s anti-corruption provisions are extremely popular in both Democrats’ home states.
“Messaging frames around reducing the influence of special interests and holding politicians accountable particularly resonated with voters,” pollsters from Democratic firms Global Strategy Group and ALG Research wrote in a memo. “In both West Virginia and Arizona, voters responded strongly to a message about the influence of special interests due to money in politics
and about Washington being ineffective.
Meanwhile, time is running out to pass any legislation in time to influence the midterm elections in 2022.
Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), who won her seat in part due to anti-corruption messaging, said passage of the bill would help her reelection campaign in what is expected to be a difficult political cycle for Democrats.
“I’m from the home of both the Koch Brothers and Kris Kobach,” Davids said, referring to the billionaire conservative megadonors and the state’s arch-conservative former attorney general. “These things have been on Kansans’ minds for a long time.”
Davids was one of 39 House Democrats
from across the ideological and identity spectrums who signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
this week urging him to “consider all legislative and procedural means available in order to pass this critical legislation.”