The For the People Act is the centerpiece of the Democratic Party’s effort to remake American democracy. The legislation has galvanized a large and well-funded coalition of left-wing activists, elected officials, and advocacy groups, many of whom still insist that victory is within reach. Indeed, in light of the controversy over Georgia’s new voter-access law, this coalition might soon expand to include some of the nation’s leading corporate executives. Nevertheless, the bill, which passed in the House, seems doomed in the Senate. The most obvious problem it faces is that Joe Manchin, the all-important senator from West Virginia, has made it exceedingly clear that if he’s going to get behind voting-rights legislation, it will have to be bipartisan.
Even though the measure is co-sponsored by the 49 other senators who caucus with the Democrats, and was opposed by only one House Democrat, Manchin is far from alone in his misgivings. If there were a serious danger that the bill in its current form might be signed into law, its support among congressional Democrats would quickly evaporate.
If the reform movement wants to see changes actually enacted, instead of denouncing the bill’s opponents as enemies of democracy, it ought to consider appealing to the sensibilities of Manchin and other political misfits who are wary of framing democratic reform as a partisan cause.
Before considering a better way forward, it’s important to understand why the For the People Act is making so many Democratic regulars anxious. The bill is a sprawling collection of different proposals, and not all of them enjoy universal support. The bill’s redistricting reforms, for example, represent a threat to a number of Democratic incumbents who stand to benefit from partisan gerrymandering in the months to come, which hasn’t escaped their attention. And at a time when left-of-center Democratic candidates are raising prodigious sums from affluent donors living outside their district, many moderates are wary of the bill’s small-donor matching program, which could supercharge the campaigns of progressive primary challengers.
As it stands, the For the People Act aims to encourage small donations to congressional campaigns by providing a sixfold federal-government match to donations of $200 or less. Congressional candidates who opt in to this program would be forced to accept a maximum donation level of $1,000, which is significantly lower than the current maximum of $2,900. The stated objective of the program is to dampen the influence of wealthy donors by reducing the size of the largest donations and multiplying the impact of small ones, making small-donor fundraising a more lucrative proposition
The small-donor matching program, inspired by a similar effort in New York City, sounds innocuous enough. As Richard Pildes of the NYU School of Law has observed, however, there is an important difference between the two programs. While the New York City program matches only small donations made by city residents (and not those made by people living in Palm Beach, Florida, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, no doubt to the disappointment of the national-fundraising phenom Andrew Yang), the For the People Act does not limit matching funds to in-district contributions. Rather than mitigating the growing tendency of House candidates to rely on out-of-district donors over in-district donors, this provision will almost certainly increase it.
Given that congressional candidates already rely heavily on out-of-district donors, this aspect of the small-donor matching program might seem immaterial. But evidence shows that the rising influence of out-of-district donors has already led House members to be less responsive to their own constituents. In a recent article in Legislative Studies Quarterly, the political scientists Brandice Canes-Wrone and Kenneth M. Miller report that “when the national donor base prefers a different outcome than a representative’s general and primary electorates, overwhelmingly the member chooses the donor-favored position.” This could merely reflect the ideological proclivities of the members in question, whom you’d expect to be more in tune with their like-minded donors than a random assortment of their neighbors. But Canes-Wrone and Miller also found that “the higher the proportion of out-of-district donations a member has received in recent years, the more responsive they are to the preferences of the national donor class” and, relatedly, that “responsiveness to national donor opinion is higher the safer is the district.”
Though the For the People Act’s campaign-finance provisions haven’t attracted nearly as much attention as its voting reforms, there is good reason to believe they’d have a larger impact on the shape of our politics. Making voting more convenient may be a worthy thing to do, but there’s scant evidence that it increases voter turnout, let alone changes the outcome of elections. Campaign-finance subsidies, in contrast, can have a significant influence on who runs and wins, depending on their design. Intentionally or otherwise, the small-donor match in the For the People Act is likely to boost ideologically extreme candidates who devote their time and energy to cultivating a national donor base.
One response would be to abandon the idea of a small-donor matching program outright, which may well be the right call. There is another possibility, however: Congress could devise a different program, one designed to encourage candidates to be more responsive to their voters by limiting small-donor matching funds to in-district donors. It wouldn’t prevent national donors from supporting candidates they believe in, as is their right. But it might push against the intensifying nationalization of American politics, at least a bit. As such, it might appeal to senators such as Susan Collins of Maine, the centrist Republican who won reelection in November after overcoming a massive fundraising disadvantage, and other moderates in Congress who’ve been forced to reckon with the rise of the ActBlue fundraising machine.
The redistricting reforms in the For the People Act raise a different set of issues. One is that even in the absence of explicit partisan gerrymandering, it can be exceptionally difficult to draw competitive single-member districts, given the intense concentration of Democratic voters in dense communities, as the political scientist Jonathan Rodden has observed. The only way to ensure election outcomes in strict proportion to statewide partisanship, which seems to be the goal of the bill’s independent redistricting commissions, is to establish a more proportional voting system, a solution that I’d happily embrace, but that is, for now, a nonstarter.
If independent commissions won’t do very much to advance their ostensible purpose, congressional Democrats who believe they will bear some cost from taking redistricting out of the hands of state legislatures will be even less inclined to do so. This is particularly relevant in the case of House members who represent majority-Black districts, who’ve reportedly been particularly wary of redistricting reform. Given the near uniformity of Black partisanship, it can be difficult to disentangle partisan gerrymandering from efforts to draw majority-Black congressional districts.
Rather than fixating on independent commissions, a bipartisan democratic reform effort could include a modest expansion in the size of the House of Representatives, one of several worthy proposals endorsed by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. The House has been capped at 435 members since 1929, when the U.S. population was just over a third of what it is now. In addition to improving the quality of democratic representation by making congressional constituencies (modestly) smaller, this reform would have the added benefit of easing the pain of the next round of congressional reapportionment, which since 1929 has inevitably entailed stripping congressional districts from states that are shrinking in relative terms and bestowing them on states that are growing. Adding an additional 50 members, as the commission suggests, would eliminate the need to shrink the size of any state’s congressional delegation.
Moreover, this increase in the size of the House would lend itself to the creation of at-large districts, an idea that’s been championed by Anne Kim, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Under Kim’s proposal, states with more than two representatives would allocate one seat to an at-large member, who would represent all of the state’s voters. This at-large district would, of course, be impossible to gerrymander, and it would ensure that every voter in the state would have two House members looking out for their interests. Kim maintains that these at-large districts would be more likely to elect moderates, which is not an unreasonable conclusion to draw. This would surely make at-large districts attractive to Manchin, Collins, and other self-styled centrists who’d welcome an infusion of moderate members.
Neither of these proposals is a guaranteed winner. A small-donor matching program of any kind will surely meet with resistance, not least from limited-government conservatives who have legitimate qualms about using taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns, as will expanding the House, a step that would necessarily dilute the clout of each individual House member. Yet Democratic moderates, many of whom resent the influence of a national donor base that is to the left of their voters, and Republican populists, many of whom are concerned about the leftward drift of corporate America, would have much to gain from this more modest agenda for democratic reform, and that’s no small thing.