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Molly Butler / Media Matters

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The myths and facts around the For the People Act

The draft legislation is also known as HR 1 and S 1

Democrats are working to revise election law across the country, introducing the For the People Act to strengthen and expand voting rights protections and promote increased campaign finance transparency. But right-wing media are falsely painting the legislation as a corrupt attempt to seize power from Republicans and state legislatures. 

The Brennan Center for Justice explains that the bills -- recently reintroduced in the House (H.R. 1) and soon to be brought to the Senate (S.B. 1) -- will bolster the right to vote for all Americans:

The Act incorporates key measures that are urgently needed, including automatic voter registration and other steps to modernize our elections; a national guarantee of free and fair elections without voter suppression, coupled with a commitment to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act; small donor public financing to empower ordinary Americans instead of big donors (at no cost to taxpayers) and other critical campaign finance reforms; an end to partisan gerrymandering; and a much-needed overhaul of federal ethics rules.

Here are some myths currently circulating about the For the People Act and corresponding facts:

  • The For the People Act is not a Democratic scheme to permanently rig elections

  • FALSE: Fox’s Dan Bongino quoted Real Clear Politics in calling the For the People Act “a roadmap to one-party rule” on his show. Bongino claimed Republicans “will never win an election again -- ever.”

    FALSE: Fox News’ Sean Hannity alleged that the bill is the “Democratic guaranteed election strategy,” and “it's so obvious that they, they want, they don't care” about voter fraud “as long as they think it's going to work in their favor.”

    FALSE: Fox News contributor Leo Terrell claimed the bill “is a power grab for the Democrats.”

    FALSE: Newsmax’s Charles Faddis wrote that measures state legislatures adopted to enable voting during the pandemic were put in place not because of safety and access issues but because Democrats “could not defeat Donald Trump” otherwise. Faddis continued, “Now they want to force the entire nation to accept in perpetuity the same no-excuses mail-in voting measures that just gave Joe Biden the White House” through the For the People Act. In a dramatic conclusion, Faddis alleged that “this is about fraud forever. This is the next step in the destruction of American democracy” and claimed it shows that “our constitutional republic is living on borrowed time.”

    FALSE: The Gateway Pundit’s Joe Hoft wrote, “In their first act, this Congress led by true communists apparently, is ready to pass a bill allowing all future elections in the USA to be run exactly the same as any communist regime in history.” He claimed the act “will eliminate free and fair elections forever. Fraud will be the mandate and Democrats, the kings of fraud, will win every election henceforth.”

    REALITY: The For the People Act would protect voting rights of all voters, regardless of political affiliation, as explained by the League of Women Voters, which described how the expansion of voter registration during the pandemic led to “increased voter turnout that benefitted both parties” during the 2020 election. In fact, as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent pointed out, “some commentators have suggested the relatively successful GOP down-ballot performance in 2020 shows the party needn’t fear high-turnout elections and should try running on a conservative populist agenda rather than banking on voter suppression.”

    Furthermore, the bill also addresses structural flaws exploited by both parties. As the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) explained, this bill addresses issues of “extreme partisan gerrymandering in states controlled by Democrats and Republicans alike” and “record-breaking amounts of campaign spending and difficult-to-trace dark money supporting both Democrats and Republicans.” In another piece, CLC wrote, “The For the People Act would address problematic practices employed by both Democrats and Republicans.”

    The Brennan Center for Justice explained: “These reforms respond directly to Americans’ desire for real solutions that ensure that each of us can have a voice in the decisions that govern our lives, as evidenced by their passage in many states, often by lopsided bipartisan margins.” After the passage of automatic voter registration in 2015 in two states, “17 more states and the District of Columbia followed—many with strong bipartisan support. In Illinois, for example, the state legislature passed AVR unanimously, and a Republican governor signed it into law,” it continued. Even voting rights restoration for those previously convicted of felonies “is immensely popular regardless of political views. In November 2018, 65 percent of Florida voters passed a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to 1.4 million of their fellow residents, with a massive groundswell of bipartisan support.”

  • The For the People Act does not legalize voter fraud

  • FALSE: The Steve Bannon-linked Populist Press smeared several areas of the For the People Act, including describing “motor voter” registration (the process of allowing state departments of motor vehicles to serve as a place to register to vote) as “how thousands of illegal became registered voters in California and Nevada.” The Populist Press also wrote that the bill prohibits “attempts to clean voter rolls of non-residents,” claiming that one part of the legislation “basically says nobody is allowed to request voter rolls to be cleaned up,” and that the bill legalizes “limitless ballot harvesting.”

    FALSE: On Premiere Radio Networks' The Sean Hannity Show, host Sean Hannity put forward a conspiracy theory that Democrats want the bill to “reward” undocumented immigrants “with citizenship” so they’ll “vote for us for generations to come.” Hannity listed a number of protections for voter registration and against voter suppression in the bill, claiming that Democrats “don't want free and fair elections.”

    FALSE: On Outnumbered, Fox News contributor Emily Compagno alleged that the bill “solidifies all of the questionable voting practices that … called into question so much doubt about vote validity in the last election and ultimately led to an erosion of faith in the entire voting system.” Fox News contributor Leo Terrell said that the bill “is an attempt by the Democrats to allow anyone to vote without verification” and would allow “ballot harvesting.”

    FALSE: Conservative website PJ Media wrote, “HR-1 would take nearly every process that created skepticism about the outcome in 2020 and make it the law nationally—and then some.”

    FALSE: Townhall opinion columnist Chris Talgo alleged that although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the bill “is intended to curb election fraud, it would do the opposite,” including by increasing mail-in voting which “would be a boon for election fraud.” Ultimately, Talgo wrote, “The ill-named For the People Act would erode election integrity, invite voter fraud, and further divide the country along partisan lines.”

    FALSE: In an opinion piece for The Washington Times, columnist Robert Knight wrote, “As the New Year is dawning, Americans are facing either a divided government or a unified socialist left controlling all major federal branches.” Knight pointed to the For the People Act as “a brazen destruction of what’s left of election integrity safeguards.”

    REALITY: Whereas the type of voter fraud right-wing media fearmonger about is virtually nonexistent, the U.S. intelligence community and congressional investigations have confirmed that our election system is vulnerable to attacks of the sort Russia engineered in the 2016 election cycle. Accordingly, the For the People Act has multiple sections dedicated to election security, ensuring “that American elections are decided by American voters, without interference, by enhancing federal support for voting system security, particularly with paper ballots and also by increasing oversight of election system vendors and by requiring the development of a national strategy to protect U.S. democratic institutions.”

    The claim that “motor voter” registration will lead to noncitizens voting is a tired right-wing media myth. As NPR wrote, “Claims of massive illegal voting by noncitizens have routinely been disproved,” though “some noncitizens have ended up on the rolls, usually by accident” when asked about registering to vote when they go to state motor vehicle offices.

    In addition to regularly debunked myths about systemic voter registration fraud and alleged noncitizen voter fraud, during the 2020 election, some in right-wing media accused Democrats of trying to “harvest” ballots in order to steal the election. This pejorative use of “ballot harvesting” lumps together absentee ballot fraud with this legitimate method of ballot collection, which is legal in more than half the country. Twenty-six states allow ballot collection because it helps voters who have a difficult time with mobility or otherwise cannot physically reach a polling place; for instance, the Native American Rights Fund wrote in 2019 that “native voters, especially tribal elders, often lack reliable transportation and reside in geographically remote areas in which they rely upon friends and neighbors to pick up and return their mail.”

    Both political parties and some nonpartisan groups participate in the practice where it is legal, and absentee ballot fraud cases that utilize fraudulent ballot collection schemes are few and far between. Additionally, the Brennan Center for Justice notes that “ballot tampering is illegal everywhere. That includes practices like stealing ballots from mailboxes, filling out other people’s ballots without their consent and direction, and changing or throwing out other people’s ballots.”

  • The For the People Act will not usurp election regulation from states and give it to Congress

  • FALSE: The Daily Signal’s Jarrett Stepman wrote, “H.R. 1, in the name of democracy, takes a blow torch to the concepts federalism and self-government enshrined in our Constitution.” Stepman continued that this was the “most concerning aspect of H.R. 1” and that the bill “would not just undermine, but bulldoze any semblance of federalism left in our political system.”

    FALSE: Populist Press claimed the bill would ensure a “complete Congressional takeover of redistricting.”

    FALSE: On Fox News’ Outnumbered, contributor Emily Compagno said, “On federalism, we know that the founders specifically with the 10th Amendment left to the state a reserved power of running the elections. So, with this, it would nationalize it.” Fox News contributor Leo Terrell claimed, “States have the obligation to set forth qualifications for voters within their states. This is a hijack. This is to nationalize it. That's wrong. It's the right of the states to set the qualifications.”

    FALSE: Chris Talgo wrote for Townhall: “HR 1 is a massive bill, more than 800 pages long, that would supersede state legislatures’ constitutional right to set election procedures.”

    FALSE: Newmax’s Charles Faddis called it “a complete federal takeover of our election system.”

    REALITY: As PolitiFact wrote about misinformation spread about the bill:

    The legislation has faced pushback from conservatives who see it as overstepping states’ rights. In the past, states have set most details of election laws.

    While the legislation overall is seen as Democrats’ wishlist to expand access to the ballot, the Campaign Legal Center found that it includes several policies that have been supported by state officials in red states or backed by Republicans in Congress.

    For example, the legislation includes provisions to require states to enact automatic registration and same-day registration, which is already the policy in many states.

    In terms of the redistricting portion of the bill, PolitiFact explained:

    The bill states that Congress can establish the conditions states must follow in carrying out congressional redistricting including to create independent redistricting commissions. Some states already use commissions to carry out redistricting or advise state legislatures.

    “It’s a congressional directive in how states would conduct redistricting,” but Congress itself would not take over draw the lines, said Jeffrey Wice, adjunct professor at New York Law School and long-time counsel to the New York State Legislature.

    Rebutting critics who “portray the legislation as unprecedented and unduly intruding on the scope of state authority over elections,” Franita Tolson, law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, argued:

    These concerns are unfounded because Congress has broad authority to regulate federal elections under the Elections Clause of Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution. This authority sometimes permits Congress to reach voter-qualification standards and state elections long considered to be the domain of the states. Congress has rarely used its power under the Clause, contributing to its underenforcement and also to misconceptions about the Clause’s reach. But when utilized, the Clause has supported legislation, both enacted and proposed, that was much broader and more intrusive of state authority than H.R. 1. 

    In an article about the redistricting portion of the 2019 For the People Act, which would eliminate partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to establish independent redistricting commissions, the Harvard Law Review wrote that “evidence suggests that the Elections Clause, much like the Supremacy Clause and the Full Faith and Credit Clause, immunizes certain exercises of federal power from the anticommandeering doctrine,” which dictates that the federal government cannot “commandeer” state governments to adopt or enforce federal laws. In other words, “text, case law, and constitutional history support the proposition that Congress is within its authority under the Elections Clause to require states to adopt” the redistricting provisions in the bill.

    The Supreme Court has also affirmed the constitutional authority of Congress to enact legislation like the For the People Act. In the Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (2013) decision, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court, reiterated this precedent (citations omitted):

    The [Elections] Clause’s substantive scope is broad. “Times, Places, and Manner,” we have written, are “comprehensive words,” which “embrace authority to provide a complete code for congressional elections,” including, as relevant here and as petitioners do not contest, regulations relating to “registration.” In practice, the Clause functions as “a default provision; it invests the States with responsibility for the mechanics of congressional elections, but only so far as Congress declines to pre-empt state legislative choices.” The power of Congress over the “Times, Places and Manner” of congressional elections “is paramount, and may be exercised at any time, and to any extent which it deems expedient; and so far as it is exercised, and no farther, the regulations effected supersede those of the State which are inconsistent therewith.”

  • The For the People Act does not allow incarcerated people to vote

  • FALSE: Turning Point USA founder and podcast host Charlie Kirk lied that the bill would allow convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to vote from prison. Kirk suggested that “they should really rename this bill, to the ‘Boston Bomber Bill.’ Because this bill would allow the Boston Bomber to have a right to vote.”

    FALSE: Fox host Brian Kilmeade claimed that the For the People Act “restores voting rights for convicted felons -- who wants people in jumpsuits voting?”

    FALSE: Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo argued that the bill would legalize “voting for, potentially, inmates and people as young as 16 years old.”

    REALITY: The For the People Act would not restore voting rights for incarcerated individuals. The text of the bill specifically states that it would not apply to anyone “serving a felony sentence in a correctional institution or facility at the time of the election.”

    Instead, the bill would automatically restore federal voting rights to people only once they have been released from prison, which is already the law in 18 states. This provision is designed to address felony disenfranchisement laws that disproportionately impact African Americans.

    According to The Sentencing Project, nearly 5.2 million Americans are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, yet only 25% of those people are currently incarcerated. More than 6% of the adult African American population is currently disenfranchised under these laws, many of which originated during the Jim Crow era.

    Update (3/11/21): This article has been updated with additional examples.