by Jonathan Bydlak, Director, R Street Governance Program (January 19, 2021)
For years, H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” has been advanced as a way to fix our political system. The bill is sweeping in scope, and represents a wish list of ideas from the political left. In the new Congress, the bill will likely take center-stage.
H.R. 1 is likely the most consequential piece of election-related legislation in years and mostly in a bad way. Let’s be clear: it should be easier to participate in elections and easier to talk about elections. Anything that does the opposite is a bad idea.
As an organization, R Street stands strongly for the cause of political reform, and we will always support good policy. H.R. 1 is not good policy. For example:
- It limits freedom of speech: The first amendment protects public speech and case law accords the most protection to political statements. While the internet does make broad circulation of ideas easier than ever before, reaching a true mass audience almost always requires spending money. Therefore, restricting money spent on political causes, while perhaps well-intentioned, also restricts speech. H.R. 1 only adds to the labyrinth of laws and regulations that govern spending money on political causes and it should be opposed for that reason alone. It’s through political speech that people can make their views known and can debate with each other. Less money for political speech means that whoever has power already is likely to keep it even if they use it in harmful ways.
- H.R. 1 would weaken organizations that are seeking to impact public policy in positive ways: The first amendment applies to mass media organizations, nonprofits and unions, and is the reason any of these groups can speak without any fear of criminal sanction. Profit-making businesses, the lifeblood of the economy, have political rights too. The right to speak freely also involves the right to speak collectively and anonymously. We believe that limiting speech for people or groups we disagree with eventually could open the door to limiting our own speech. As a non-profit organization, the precedents H.R. 1 would set for groups like us would significantly restrict the ability of numerous organizations to carry out critical policy work.
- It aims to forbid anonymous speech: Anonymous speech about political matters has played a vital role in America’s history—just ask the authors of The Federalist Papers. Many of those who supported the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had very legitimate fears of having their identities uncovered. There are many good reasons to speak anonymously and disclosure requirements only harm individuals who support unpopular causes. But sometimes people who support once-unpopular causes turn out to be right. Helping a cause should not require public declarations of support.
- It federalizes elections unnecessarily: The Constitution and its amendments make two promises that are sometimes at odds: voting rights can’t be abridged and states should run their own elections. While there should be a strong federal role in protecting the right to vote and election security, the specifics of election administration should be left to the states. This helps good policy ideas spread while bad ones die well-deserved deaths. Decentralization makes the overall system stronger—people intent on disruption have to figure out 50 separate systems—and lets states adopt customized practices, preferences and political systems. H.R. 1 would slash these differences and undermine state autonomy, an important strength of our electoral system.
Don’t get us wrong—there are some reforms in H.R. 1 that make a lot of sense. Vote-by-mail, mandatory paper trails for votes, enfranchisement of those with felony records, same-day registration, non-partisan redistricting and federal pre-clearance of changes to voting laws are all ideas worthy of support. But at the federal level, H.R. 1 is a bad bill that would squash political speech.