HR1—the For the People Act—passed in the House, but it faces additional, perhaps insurmountable hurdles in the Senate. The omnibus elections legislation is so wide ranging that it is unlikely to garner majority support in the Senate, let alone the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture.
The bill’s outlook isn’t an indication that Congress can’t pass meaningful election administration legislation. Rather, it offers an important lesson regarding how today’s Congress should tackle election policy topics.
Instead of taking the HR1-style ‘kitchen sink’ approach on democracy reforms, Congress should start with targeted initiatives focused on specific problems. This tactic enhances the possibility of attracting bipartisan support, which in turn maximizes Congress’ ability to make necessary, tangible improvements to the American electoral ecosystem.
This is not a new approach to elections legislation. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Susan Collins (R-ME) exemplified this strategy just this month, when they announced the re-introduction of the Invest in Our Democracy Act—a proposal to address some key cybersecurity issues, in a time when cybersecurity remains a pressing election administration concern.
The Invest in Our Democracy Act would allocate funds to the Election Assistance Commission to cover up to 75% of the costs for election officials to participate in accredited election administration certificate and cybersecurity programs. Those funds would go primarily to officials in smaller jurisdictions, which tend to have limited resources and, as a result, are most vulnerable to cybersecurity threats.
The bill would have an important impact. A recent report from US intelligence officials outlined an attempted—though unsuccessful—foreign interference effort in the 2020 general election. Despite the extant threat, cybersecurity and election administration training programs are often prohibitively expensive for election offices—many of which can barely cover current costs. Easing some of that burden amounts to a smart, impactful investment in our election infrastructure.
Importantly, the Invest in Our Democracy Act offers a sensible solution to a specific, bipartisan election policy issue (cybersecurity). It was both crafted and is being introduced in a bipartisan manner.
Therein lies the lesson: if Congress only takes the all-or-nothing approach to democracy reforms like in H.R. 1, we’re likely to end up deadlocked and empty handed. Through more targeted legislation like the Invest in Our Democracy Act, Congress can circumnavigate ideological and partisan fissures and, hopefully, pass legislation that strengthens our democratic institutions.
That’s not to say HR1’s proposals aren’t important. Issues like partisan gerrymandering, campaign finance, felony disenfranchisement are pressing, foundational, and merit federal attention. But if these are policies over which Congress is sharply divided, tethering them to measures that command broader support (such as voter-verified paper ballots and collecting alternative contact information from voters) diminishes the possibility that any election reforms will pass.
Congress has an important role to play in the electoral ecosystem. At its best, federal election policy can provide vital support for the officials and administrators who reliably carry out the defining function of our democratic system. However, in order to do that, it needs to become law. As voting policy and democracy reforms continue to dominate the national discourse, Congress should keep this in mind: bills that take a targeted approach to individual election issues have a better chance of garnering bipartisan support and actually becoming law than all-or-nothing, omnibus legislation like HR1.