In the weeks after the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a flagship election reform bill known as H.R. 1 or the For the People Act of 2021, posts on social media claimed the legislation “would shift control of elections from cities, counties and states to Washington, D.C.,” “make mass mail-in ballots permanent,” “prohibit voter ID,” “allow same-day registration and voting (allowing zero time to vet potential voters for eligibility,” “enshrine ballot harvesting,” and “funnel all appeals into one court – the traditionally Democrat-controlled D.C. Circuit Court.” This list of claims is partly false.
H.R. 1, which passed in the House by a mostly partisan vote of 220 to 210 on March 3, would update voting procedures and require states to turn over the task of redrawing congressional districts to independent commissions (here).
The bill, whose full text is available here , faces long odds in the Senate, where all 48 Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them would need to be joined by 10 Republican senators to overcome a filibuster.
Democrats say the legislation is necessary to lower barriers to voting and make the U.S. political system more democratic and responsive to voters. But Republicans say it would take powers away from the states and fail to do enough to combat fraud. The influential right-wing Heritage Foundation think tank has urged lawmakers to vote against it.
DOES H.R. 1 SHIFT CONTROL OF ELECTIONS FROM STATES TO D.C.?
The posts claim that H.R. 1 “would shift control of elections from cities, counties and states to Washington, D.C.” This claim is somewhat open to interpretation. The bill would not shift control of all elections from cities, counties and states to the federal government, given that it only addresses federal elections. But experts agree it would extend the federal reach into how states run elections.
In a March 24 op-ed in Newsweek, C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel to President George H. W. Bush, described H.R. 1 as “a constitutional disaster in the making,” writing that “Congress has only a secondary, concurrent power over congressional elections, an even smaller role in presidential elections and no specific role in state elections at all (here).
According to Gray, H.R. 1 “greatly undermines this structure” and would “be a Washington, D.C. takeover of elections on a collision course with the Constitution’s text, structure and principles—all of which put the states in the driver’s seat.”
But Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a Harvard Law School professor specializing in election and constitutional law (here), told Reuters via email that Gray’s argument “misstates how both the constitutional text and the relevant doctrine address Congress's power to regulate elections.”
Stephanopoulos said that under Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress has essentially absolute authority over congressional elections. While states may regulate congressional elections, Congress may override their election laws.
“As to presidential elections, Supreme Court cases going back almost a century have said that Congress has the same sweeping power over presidential elections that it enjoys over congressional elections,” Stephanopoulos said.
“The one thing Congress may not be able to do is tell a state how to allocate its presidential electors -- but H.R. 1 doesn’t purport to do that,” as the bill “limits itself to federal elections.”
Jessica Bulman-Pozen, a professor of constitutional law at Columbia Law School, told Reuters via email that Congress has over time “gained the power to enforce constitutional amendments concerning voting in both federal and state elections--including the 14th amendment (equal protection), 15th Amendment (racial discrimination), 19th Amendment (sex discrimination), and 26th Amendment (age discrimination).” It has also passed many laws over the years on federal elections, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“These impose various requirements on states but do not amount to a ‘takeover’ of elections by the federal government. HR1 does not either,” Bulman-Pozen said, adding that it sets “standards to which states must conform as they continue to administer elections.”
WOULD H.R. 1 MAKE MAIL-IN BALLOTS UNIVERSAL?
It is true that the option to vote by mail would become universal in every state if H.R. 1 becomes law (here).
Section 1621 of the bill states the following: “If an individual in a State is eligible to cast a vote in an election for Federal office, the State may not impose any additional conditions or requirements on the eligibility of the individual to cast the vote in such election by absentee ballot by mail” (here).
As explained here by Reuters, voting by mail is not new in the United States -- nearly 1 in 4 voters cast 2016 presidential ballots that way. Routine methods and the decentralized nature of U.S. elections make it very hard to interfere with mailed ballots, experts say.
WOULD H.R. 1 PROHIBIT STATE VOTER ID LAWS?
Under section 3, “Findings of general constitutional authority,” H.R. 1 states in subsection C) that Congress “finds that States and localities have eroded access to the right to vote through restrictions on the right to vote including excessively onerous voter identification requirements” (here).
As a result, Section 303A permits the use of sworn written statements in lieu of state identification requirements. In other words, as explained here by the Economist, “states with voter-ID laws would have to let people without identification cast ballots provided they sign a sworn affidavit.”
H.R. 1 does not ban state voter ID laws, however it does stipulate that those who do not meet ID requirements have the option to sign sworn statements during federal (not state or local) elections.
As shown in a list provided here by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 35 out of 50 states have various forms of voter identification laws.
This section of the law strikes at the heart of a long-standing disagreement between Republicans and Democrats. Republican-led legislatures in many states have passed voter ID laws, arguing they are needed to prevent voter fraud. But critics including Democrats and voting rights advocates call the laws an effective way to attempt to suppress votes from African Americans, who are both more likely to vote Democratic and lack the needed identity cards (here , here , here).
WOULD H.R. 1 ALLOW SAME-DAY REGISTRATION FOR EARLY VOTING AND ELECTION DAY?
As stated in the posts, H.R. 1 would grant voters in all states access to same-day registration at early voting sites and precincts on Election Day (here). But “same day” may not limit officials’ ability to verify voters. Nearly half the states currently allow same-day registration, and some use state-wide voter systems that provide real-time checks and E-poll books. Others allow the ballot to be cast, but will not count it until the voter is verified.
Section 304 (a) says: “Each State shall permit any eligible individual on the day of a Federal election and on any day when voting, including early voting, is permitted for a Federal election— (A) to register to vote in such election at the polling place using a form that meets the requirements under section 9(b) of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993… and (B) to cast a vote in such election.”
Those who oppose same-day voter registration make arguments like the one in the social media posts, claiming the practice allows “zero time to vet potential voters for eligibility” (here).
According to Hans A. von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, under H.R. 1 “I could walk into any polling place on Election Day, register under the name John Smith, sign a form claiming I really am John Smith, cast a ballot, and walk out” (here).
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), however, security measures in the 20 U.S. states that allow same-day registration include proof of identity and residency, casting of provisional ballots, state-wide voter systems, oaths and sworn affidavits, criminal penalties for fraudulent voting, in-person registration, non-forwardable mailings, restriction of location, and cross-agency and interstate verification (here).
Proponents of same-day voter registration, such as the Brennan Center for Justice (here), say it helps ensure eligible voters can vote and does not increase opportunities to commit voter fraud ( here ).
WOULD H.R. 1 “ENSHRINE BALLOT HARVESTING”?
H.R. 1 would expand ballot collection, already legal in more than half the states. It would not allow the tampering of votes, which has come to be associated with the phrase “ballot harvesting.” If passed, the legislation could still be challenged in court and will not be a part of the U.S. Constitution, meaning that none of its provisions would be “enshrined.”
Twenty-six states allow voters to designate someone to return their ballot for them, 10 allow family members to do so, while the rest require voters to return their own ballots or are silent on the issue (here ; a NCSL table showing who can collect and return absentee ballots other than the voter in each state is available here ).
H.R. 1 would make sure that in every state a voter could designate a third party to return “a voted and sealed absentee ballot to the post office, a ballot drop-off location, tribally designated building, or election office” as long as the third-party person or group “does not receive any form of compensation” for ballot drop-off (See Sec. 304 (2) (A) here).
Activist groups of all stripes have long provided ballot collection to increase voter turnout or help those who can’t make it to the polls cast their votes. (here) .
Of late, some conservatives have raised concerns about the potential for fraud or vote-tampering in ballot collection and have labeled it “ballot harvesting.” Ballot collection opponents say third parties could fail to return ballots where they disagree with the votes or file ballots for imaginary voters.
As explained here by the Washington Post, legal collection “requires the ballot to be filled out and sealed before it’s collected,” making it “difficult for someone collecting ballots to change the actual vote.”
WILL APPEALS BE FILED IN THE D.C. CIRCUIT COURT? IS THIS COURT DEMOCRAT-CONTROLLED?
It is true that Section 4, (a) (1) of the bill says that appeals must be filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and that appeals from the district court’s decision may be brought to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (here).
But the posts’ claim that the D.C. Circuit is “Democrat-controlled” is misleading. The court’s judges have swayed over time between a Republican and Democratic appointed majority ( here , here ). The court currently consists of a chief judge and three judges appointed by former President Barack Obama (a Democrat), one judge appointed by former President George H. W. Bush (a Republican), two judges appointed by former President Bill Clinton (a Democrat), and three judges appointed by former President Donald Trump (a Republican) (here).
Current U.S. Supreme Court justices who once sat on the D.C. Circuit are Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, both viewed as staunch conservatives ( here , here ), as well as well Chief Justice John Roberts, who is currently regarded as a key swing vote (here).
Missing context. This viral description of H.R. 1, the For the People Act, contains misleading claims about the bill.
This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .
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