Both the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are needed to Build Our Democracy Anew
Sister Quincy Howard, OP
May 24, 2021
Two critical bills, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, are being considered in Congress to transform our politics and safeguard our democracy. These bills have key similarities and differences, but both are essential in ridding our democracy of systemic racism and exclusion and building a new democracy that honors both the dignity of each individual and the value of community.
What is The For the People Act (H.R.1/S.1) and what does it do?
- The For the People Act is a once-in-a-generation bill that reimagines American democracy into one that works for the people. It protects the freedom to vote, ends partisan gerrymandering, gets big money out of politics, and strengthens government ethics and accountability.
- From a voting rights perspective, it creates a national floor of accessibility to the ballot box that doesn’t currently exist, making same-day voter registration, no-excuse vote by mail, and at least two weeks of early voting the law of the land no matter where a voter lives. Many of the challenges of voting during COVID, for example, would be addressed through For the People Act.
- And, in terms of the voter suppression laws currently moving in the states, S.1 would override many of them by requiring all states to meet this baseline of accessibility.
What is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R.4) and what does it do?
- The John Lewis Voting Rights Act (VRAA) would restore the full power and protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
- In 2013, in the disastrous Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court struck down the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. This provision required states with a history of enacting racist anti-voter laws to get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before their state’s election laws could be changed.
- This bill would restore the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act and hopefully expand the list of covered states.
- This would prevent future discriminatory laws from being allowed on the books — like we are seeing proliferate across the country now.
How they work together
- These bills are complementary and are both sides of the same coin — so if you hear folks talking about how we need to pick one or the other — that is a false choice and needs to be called out as such.
- We should not be picking one — both of these bills are wildly popular — and both are 100% necessary to protect the freedom to vote. They accomplish different things.
- If we’re thinking of this as a battle for voting rights the For the People Act can be seen as a sword—an assertion of rights and reclaiming the power of the people. The VRAA can be thought of as the shield, our defense against racist, discriminatory voting laws.
Different Bills on Different Timelines: Why aren’t the bills aren’t moving together or combined?
This is because of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — it requires a legislative record of field hearings on voter discrimination to protect it from a potential legal challenge in the future. So that means it is moving at a somewhat slower pace than the For the People Act, and it hasn’t yet been introduced in 2021 because there is a lot to incorporate into the record from the 2020 election.
The For the People Act is ready to go and is on an aggressive timeline: it passed the House in March and we need it to be signed into law by the end of the summer. It will impact redistricting and it could positive impact voting laws for the 2022 election, but its reforms need time to take effect, so it is critical this bill moves in the next couple of months
We need to move forward with passage of S.1 now and take up JLVRAA as the next immediate step in our democracy agenda. Think of American democracy as a sick patient. The For the People Act is the treatment the patient needs to survive, H.R.4 is the vaccine to ensure it doesn’t get sick again. If we want to nullify the laws that have passed in states or those that will pass in the coming months, we need the For the People Act to pass. The voting rights provisions of H.R.1 came straight from the late John Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act, which he originally introduced in 2012 and reintroduced every session since.