The Legal Issues Surrounding "For the People Act"
Within the United States Constitution, election law is laid bare in Article 1, Section 4. This section, however short, places election law and processes in the hands of state legislatures and judicial systems rather than directly to the federal government. It describes how
“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof…”
While it goes on further to describe how Congress may impede and supersede these state legislatures, by placing this clause after the original placing of power to state legislatures it sets a precedent of states’ rights first.
These ideals, found in early American political thought, help to emphasise the need to limit the federal government from becoming too overbearing or restrictive. One of the first major articles written by the United States government, the Bill of Rights, sought to explicitly limit the government from becoming too powerful and overpowering the individual freedoms of peoples.
When analysing the legal layout of the US Constitution, one can clearly see why the federal government adopted the name the United States rather than one overarching name for the new federal government. When the US Constitution is taken in relation to its place in American history, namely after the dissolution of the Articles of Confederation, one can see that an overarching federal government was needed but not explicitly wanted as a primary form of governance.
Why this is Important in Relation to H.R.1 ("For the People Act")
As many younger Americans are aware, thanks to Schoolhouse Rock’s “How a Bill Becomes a Law”, for any changes to be made within the legal framework of the United States government they must first pass through both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Currently, the Democratic Party controls the House of Representatives and the majority of the Senate (with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris who broke the 50-50 gridlock political split). This means that, without the use of the filibuster or other diplomatic means, one party has near complete control over the legislative and executive branches.
H.R.1, commonly known as the "For the People Act", seeks to federalise the entire election process, overturning individual state mandates towards state and federal elections. The passing of this bill would therefore utilise the secondary clause found within Article 1 Section 4 of the United States Constitution. It would strip states’ rights to determine their own election laws and give more power to the - some may argue - already constitutionally over-empowered federal government.
For the past hundred years, the United States federal government has slowly eroded the freedoms originally granted to states within the Constitution. Within modern US political discussion, this idea can be found within the Patriot Act, passed after the September 11 attacks, which granted the federal government unseen power to surveil and monitor domestic and foreign peoples without many limitations seen prior to its passage.
The slow removal of individual states' rights could be immensely expedited due to the passage of H.R.1 which removes many provisions thought to be necessary by individual state legislatures. Instead, it would apply whichever provisions placed within the bill. Some of these include the removal of the need for photo IDs, automatic voter registrations, mail-in balloting as well as the federal matching campaign contributions six times over. The removal of the need for photo IDs is a massive overstep within the federal government’s purview as both federal and state governments offer free or low-cost ID cards. Many states already require individuals to be able to produce IDs when stopped for any traffic infractions. This common need for photo IDs highlights that removing their need to vote would benefit few if any US citizens. Furthermore, the need for Photo IDs to vote is commonly found in countries throughout the world including in Northern Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, and Germany.
While the idea of permanent mail-in balloting and automatic voter registration seems beneficial in its entirety, these provisions create ample opportunities for fraud and abuse. H.R.1., even over the course of 800 pages, does not provide any major restrictions on mail-in balloting, limiting the security of state and nationwide election processes. Even though mail-in balloting is generally a good thing, the lack of security provisions is beyond frightening for future elections. They require you to provide multiple sources of identity such as a Social Security Number (SSN) or a driver’s license number. The automatic registration of eligible individuals would further limit election security as the need for these identifying markers would no longer be needed. Although it has been seen that election fraud did not excessively occur or change the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election, many of these identifying markers were needed, skewing the evidence available for future elections.
The financial contribution side to H.R.1. is another legal predicament as it proposed to provide potential candidates with six times their individual campaign contributions. Federal campaigns already gross contributions in the hundreds of millions, further making these contributions unnecessary. These contributions are said to only affect the small-dollar finances of congressional campaigns, meaning that they would not apply to Super PAC’s (Political Action Committees) but rather donations made by individuals. Numerous congressional campaigns have had tens of millions of dollars raised by small donors meaning that the federal government would be obliged to match these six times over. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known as AOC, raised US$ 16,434,594 (around 12,170,000) in her campaign, meaning that if this bill had been passed the next time she ran and she maintained the same amount of donations, she would also be able to receive up to around US$ 99 million (approximately GBP 73 million) in campaign contributions from the federal government. There are some limitations to this, however, so AOC would not be able to get almost a hundred million dollars in campaign financing:
“The aggregate amount of payments made to a participating candidate with respect to an election cycle under this title may not exceed 50 per cent of the average of the 20 greatest amounts of disbursements made by the authorised committees of any winning candidate...”
This means that, even though the campaign contributions from the federal government are capped, they still would be allowed to receive millions of dollars from the federal government. This would mean that the United States federal government would not only overstep their Constitutional bounds in the election law sector but also campaign donations and contributions. Congressional elections would be directly impacted by the interference of the federal government in campaign contributions, furthering the problematic nature of H.R.1.
H.R.1, when read closely, can clearly be seen as the US federal government overstepping its purview to interfere with state election law and campaign finances. Rather than allowing states, and therefore the citizens of these states, to determine their own election laws, as allowed by the United States Constitution, H.R.1 completely ignores the will of individual states for the will of the majority party in Congress. Many of the aspects of H.R.1. are hidden behind hundreds of pages of legal documents, further obscuring the true implications of this bill from the public. As many individuals receive their news from television news programs, there is no way for them to know the vast majority of what this bill legalises. Even though this bill was stopped on the Senate floor by Senator Ted Cruz, the ideas and arguments present in it will continue to be debated for numerous upcoming election cycles.