The For the People Act in a Historical Context:

Reporting around H.R.-1, also known as the For the People Act, has been simply terrible, but that’s not entirely the fault of the journalists trying to cover the fight. Very few of them think like historians or lawyers; and even those who do would have trouble parsing the argument in a way that would make sense to their viewers or readers in quick soundbites or 500-wordcount limits from editors.

Fortunately, we’ve got the time, and the space, to unfold it all here.

First, what is it? What is H.R.-1?

Well, it is also S-1. Both the House and the Senate — through the coordination of their Democratic Majorities, filed the same bill for consideration at the beginning of the term. H.R.-1 has already passed the House, and now S-1 is on the docket in the Senate where they will, somehow, attempt to pass it without significant amendment, so as to get it to the Resolute Desk for the President’s signature in time to be controlling law in the 2022 midterm elections. So, that’s the first thing to know — they are the same bill.

The second thing to know is that the bills have five major provisions:

1) Voting Rights: The For the People Act would require same-day voter registration at the polls, establish automatic voter registration for federal elections by using state databases like the DMV, or public university rolls, expand vote-by-mail, require states to offer online voter registration, allow the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, criminalize efforts by officials to hinder or interfere with voting or registration, make Election Day a national holiday, restrict voter purges, eliminate the practice of voter caging, and restore the voting rights of ex-felons.

This is not an exhaustive list of the changes, but gives a solid idea of the bill’s intentions.

2) Election Security: The bill requires all voting machines used in the United States to have been manufactured in the United States, and further requires all votes to have associated paper ballots that the states must preserve.

3) Campaign Finance Reform: The bill would establish a 6:1 matching program for small donations. Candidates for federal office could opt into this program if they wished, with resources provided by a fund created through fines levied on banks and corporations caught in acts of malfeasance. Further, HR-1/S-1 would require Super PACs and other dark-money pools to disclose their donors. It would also restructure the Federal Elections Commission from its current 3–3 deadlock, to a 2–2 partisan split, with one nominally independent swing vote.

4) Ethics in Federal Office: The For the People Act would require all candidates for Presidency and Vice-Presidency to release the previous 10-years of their taxes; and it would eliminate the use of taxpayer money for settling employment discrimination cases against members of Congress. Another provision would establish a rule of ethics for SCOTUS, the only court in the nation currently without one. Finally, the bill would tighten up rules on donations to Presidential Inauguration committees, establishing donation limits and reporting requirements.

5) Gerrymandering: The bill, if enacted into law, would strip state legislatures of their power to draw Congressional districts, and turn that power over to independent redistricting commissions. The IRCs would each have 15 members (five Dems, five Republicans, and five independents), and the proposed maps would need a majority vote with support from at least one Dem, one Rep, and one independent member. Further, the maps would be require to consider issues of a) population equity; b) compliance with the Voting Rights Act, c) compliance with additional racial requirements ensuring no dilution of minority-electoral influence; d) respect political subdivisions and communities of interest; and e) give no undue advantage to any political party.

It is, truly, a large bill — coming in at nearly 800 pages, but that doesn’t mean it is incomprehensible. Though, if we dig into the reasons it is 800 pages long, we can see exactly why it is such a hard bill for journalists — particularly television journalists — to report upon.

I’m going to do something cruel here. I’m going to cut and paste a section of the bill as pertains to signature matching. I don’t do it specifically to dig into the signature-verification process, but rather to explain WHY the whole bill is so legally dense.

If your eyes glaze over after a few sections and subsections, don’t worry — that’s kinda the reason I’m doing it. Feel free to read a few sentences, then skip the rest. The analysis will pick up again after the section break:

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“(b) Due Process Requirements For States Requiring Signature Verification. —


“(A) IN GENERAL. — A State may not impose a signature verification requirement as a condition of accepting and counting an absentee ballot submitted by any individual with respect to an election for Federal office unless the State meets the due process requirements described in paragraph (2).


“(A) NOTICE AND OPPORTUNITY TO CURE DISCREPANCY IN SIGNATURES. — If an individual submits an absentee ballot and the appropriate State or local election official determines that a discrepancy exists between the signature on such ballot and the signature of such individual on the official list of registered voters in the State or other official record or document used by the State to verify the signatures of voters, such election official, prior to making a final determination as to the validity of such ballot, shall —

“(i) make a good faith effort to immediately notify the individual by mail, telephone, and (if available) text message and electronic mail that —

“(I) a discrepancy exists between the signature on such ballot and the signature of the individual on the official list of registered voters in the State or other official record or document used by the State to verify the signatures of voters, and

“(II) if such discrepancy is not cured prior to the expiration of the 10-day period which begins on the date the official notifies the individual of the discrepancy, such ballot will not be counted; and

“(ii) cure such discrepancy and count the ballot if, prior to the expiration of the 10-day period described in clause (i)(II), the individual provides the official with information to cure such discrepancy, either in person, by telephone, or by electronic methods.

(Analysis picks up again here.)

Overall the For the People Act is 800 pages of this. It is mind-numbing to read, but there is a point:

The subsection quoted above is about requiring the state to inform the voter if their signature-match is at issue. It requires that the state do that promptly — by mail, telephone, email, and text, if possible.

Note that it is the state’s job to do, if possible, ALL these things. Not one of them, but all of them.

The state must also give ten-days for the voter to respond, and those ten days start AFTER the state has contacted the voter, not when they make the first attempt.

Further, the state must allow the voter to provide evidence claiming that it IS their signature in person, by phone, or through “electronic means,” like email. The state CANNOT require them to do this in person, if the voter can, say, email them a copy of their driver’s license or passport.

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Let’s do another one:

“© OTHER REQUIREMENTS. — An election official may not make a determination that a discrepancy exists between the signature on an absentee ballot and the signature of the individual who submits the ballot on the official list of registered voters in the State or other official record or other document used by the State to verify the signatures of voters unless —

“(i) at least 2 election officials make the determination;

“(ii) each official who makes the determination has received training in procedures used to verify signatures; and

“(iii) of the officials who make the determination, at least one is affiliated with the political party whose candidate received the most votes in the most recent statewide election for Federal office held in the State and at least one is affiliated with the political party whose candidate received the second most votes in the most recent statewide election for Federal office held in the State.

— — — -

This section of the law considers WHO can challenge a signature, and states that it cannot be just one election official, but MUST be determined by “at least two” elections officials who are trained in signature-matching procedures. Further, at least one of them must be a Democrat and on a Republican.

Now, in the press — particularly on televised talking-head shows (even the good ones), all of this is nearly overwhelming. As such, the hosts have tended to brush the laws off as “overly complicated,” or “too ambitious,” or “unnecessarily overwritten.”

But if you understand the history of voting rights and voter suppression in our country, it is absolutely none of those things.

It is a damn good bill for our moment.

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Did you know that James Madison, principal author of the Constitution, opposed the inclusion of a Bill of Rights? His reasoning was simple: He felt that if you start to enumerate specific rights retained by the states or the people, you invite those who dispute those rights to begin a process of chipping away AROUND the specific provisions of the law.

To make it almost absurd, Madison felt that something like the 3rd Amendment (which forbids the quartering of soldiers “in any house, without the consent of the Owner”) could be read by an unscrupulous government to mean that they COULD quarter soldiers in your front yard, or your barn, or your shed, or in an apartment building. He feared that if the Amendment said “house” then anything that wasn’t specifically a “house” would be up for grabs.

Better, thought Madison, to let the whole edifice of the Constitution stand as an imposing wall against creeping legislation. He felt that the Constitution itself, if it was read as a whole — as a document that only gave specific, enumerated powers to the government — would form a natural barrier against a tendency to invade individual liberty.

We’ll never know if Madison notion was better, because the Anti-Federalists refused to sign-on to the document without a promise of a Bill of Rights to follow, but we DO know that in the long history of this country since those early days, the practice of trying to “get round” legal language has become the norm of legislators and lobbyists alike, and nowhere has that tendency been more egregious than when it comes to voter-suppression, particularly as pertains to race.

This tendency came into effect almost immediately after the passage of the 15th Amendment during Reconstruction. That Amendment, by the letter of the law, made it unconstitutional to deny the right to vote “on account of race, color, or former condition of servitude.”

Consider just that one phrase in that one sentence. It consciously enumerates THREE variables that essentially mean the same thing, and the reason was clear. The drafters of that amendment understood full well that if the wording only read “on account of race or former condition of servitude,” the Mississippi legislature would immediately enact a law that restricted the franchise based on skin tone. Or, if it read “on account of race or color,” the Georgia legislature would immediately have passed a law stating that “all former slaves, regardless of race” are barred from voting.

As it happened, even the triply enforced language of the 15th Amendment wasn’t enough. After the fall of Reconstruction in 1877, those still-deeply-racists states of the South passed literacy test and poll taxes that achieved the same ends as they could have with a law that simply barred formerly enslaved people from leaving their homes on Election Day.

That same game of legal cat-and-mouse continues to this very day, and it is precisely why HR-1 and S-1 are 800 pages long. The bills are repetitive, exhaustive, and tedious — but they should be understood as documents written by men and women who understand, VERY WELL that their opponents in this fight will seek out absolutely any way to get around the intention of the law.

In 1877, the citizens of Mississippi and Georgia did not live in a world where a plain rule stating that formerly enslaved men could now legally vote would hold sway. They simply didn’t.

In very much the same way, WE do not live in a world where we can trust that a law plainly stating that “voters must be allowed to challenge a signature match” would hold any water at all, if state officials weren’t explicitly ordered WHEN to contact them, HOW to contact them, and how exactly those voters could make the challenge.

We very much live in a world where if you don’t expressly rebalance the scales in favor of voters, their franchise will be discarded for political expediency and corrupt partisan purpose.

Now, to accurately report all that, Chuck Todd or Joe Scarborough would have to, first, understand what is actually in the bill; second, they would have to know the historical context; and third, they would the time to explain it to their viewers — and that’s not going to happen. As such, they take the simple — and simply incorrect — easier path of stating that the bill is “unwieldy” and then both-sidesing it to death by giving Republican legislators the chance to heave pot-shots, while saying that Democrats are afraid to dig into the detail of the bill.

And we’re not.

It’s just that defending democracy against a centuries-long battle of racist discrimination that is constantly adapting to our battle plan isn’t the work of a 15-second sound bite. It’s rather more complex than that, but it’s so damn important.

I really hope this bill becomes law. it is a good, good piece of legislation.


Once a history teacher in Brooklyn, Mike took a sabbatical in 2004 to travel through Latin America. He never returned. He lives and works in Guatemala.