Slim majorities and Republican Voting Bills make HR 1 “do-or-die” for Democrats

Disappointments in 2020 and Republican voter suppression laws make passing HR 1 a #1 priority for the Democrats, or else they face a very steep climb in 2022 and beyond.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) calls on then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to hold a vote on HR 1 back in 2020 (credit: businessinsider.com; AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

By Andres Cerda

May 10, 2021

AUSTIN — 2020 was a bit of a “mixed bag” for Democrats. Sure the party won the most votes ever for a Presidential candidate, and even recaptured the Senate chamber for the first time in 6 years. However, the margin of victory was much closer than expected, and had Democrats walking away with much less than they anticipated.

Joe Biden was considered a heavy favorite to defeat incumbent President Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential race. On average, he led Trump by 7.9 percentage points in national polls, and was polling similarly in key swing states. On paper his popularity wasn’t deceiving, as he won over an astounding 81 million votes nationally, the most-ever for a Presidential nominee in history. He did that while flipping five states that had previously voted for incumbent President Donald Trump in 2016, and even won more electoral votes than Trump did in 2016 (306 vs. 302).

However, Trump himself won 74 million votes nationally, the second most-ever for a Presidential nominee in history. In fact, if it weren’t for a combined 44,000 votes in Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia, the election would’ve been tied and Trump would’ve won re-election via a tie-breaking vote in the House of Representatives. That would’ve been despite the Democrats having control of the chamber, since Republicans hold the majority of state delegations in the House and the vote is done on a “1 state, 1 vote” basis.

Despite being favored to win Senate seats in states like North Carolina and Maine, Democrats underperformed and had to rely on wins in Georgia to win the Senate majority. (website: 270toWin.com)

It wasn’t just in the Presidential election where Democrats underperformed. In the Senate, they were considered favorites to oust Republican incumbents in Maine, North Carolina, and Iowa. Instead, they didn’t capture a single one of those seats. In fact if it weren’t for record-breaking voter turnout in the 2021 Georgia Senate runoffs, they would’ve outright failed to capture the chamber.

Possibly the worst underachievement of all was among House Democrats, who lost seats in the chamber despite the unpopularity of President Trump and a bunch of retirements among House Republicans. Democrats were clinging to a slim 10-seat majority after enjoying a 35-seat one for the past two years, and currently have an even slimmer six-seat majority after some members left to join the Biden administration.

That six-seat majority is what has many Democrats worried about the upcoming 2022 midterm elections, as the president’s party typically always fares bad in midterm elections and the fact that 2022 will be the first map with new Congressional districts following redistricting (which Democrats are of course locked out of in 20+ states due to underachieving in local elections).

While they will actually be on offense for the Senate due to key retirements in states that Biden won in 2020, losing the House would put an effective end to President Biden’s legislative goals until at least the next election in 2024. Republicans seem to be very aware of this, as they’ve already started passing a multitude of voter suppression laws in state legislatures they control.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (R) seen signing controversial voting bill that sparked a backlash (credit: @BrianKempGA — Gov. Kemp’s Twitter account)

Georgia recently made headlines for further restricting it’s vote-by-mail laws after it was used disproportionately by Democratic voters to flip the state to Biden. Florida is in the process of passing a similar law, and Texas is attempting to pass similar measures during its ongoing legislative session.

All these factors make passing a signature piece of legislation all the more imperative to pass while Democrats are in power. That legislation is in the form of HR 1, or the For the People Act of 2021.

HR 1 has been touted as one of the most progressive pieces of voting rights legislation since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as it greatly expands voting access in all 50 states and looks to ban issues like partisan gerrymandering. However if Democrats don’t pass it, the consequences could be severe and quite long-lasting.

How HR 1 helps Democrats

HR 1 is a currently proposed bill that would serve as a complete overhaul of how we run federal elections. While there are a great deal of things that HR 1 specifically does (from campaign finance laws to tax returns of Presidential candidates), there are two areas I want to focus on specifically that would help Democrats combat these voter suppression laws: Elections and Gerrymandering.

The part that makes HR so unique is how it expands voting access at the federal level. It includes provisions like:

  • Requiring states to offer same-day voter registration, as well as permitting voters to make changes to their registration at the polls.

These would greatly expand the ability to vote for all Americans, and would especially help curtail a lot of the provisions in recently-pass Republican voter suppression bills.

Texas’s 35th Congressional district, known as one of the most gerrymandered districts in all of the state. With HR 1, districts like these would become banned. (Credit: newrepublic.com)

The second most important part of HR 1 is that it would codify a ban on partisan gerrymandering for federal elections. Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing the geographic lines used for elections to favor that of one group. This can either be in the form of racial gerrymandering (which is illegal) and partisan gerrymandering (which is not!). The difference is that racial gerrymandering is to draw the lines favoring one race, while partisan gerrymandering is drawing the lines to favor one party. Partisan gerrymandering is the Democrats’ biggest obstacle to retaining the House in 2022, as the Democrats have an aforementioned slim majority and apparently Republicans could take back the House simply from gerrymandering alone!

However with this law, states would be required to appoint an independent commission that would redraw the maps. It would feature 5 Republicans, 5 Democrats, and 5 Independents, and would require at least one of each to approve the new maps. Some states actually already incorporate this method in some form (i.e. California), but this would essentially take redistricting out of the hands of partisan state legislatures (both Democrat and Republican). If this were to occur, Democrats would be able to curtail the gerrymandering that’s about to take place this year, and have a chance of actually retaining their House majority.

How HR 1 may not exactly help Democrats

While the whole point of HR 1 would be to make sure Democratic voters aren’t restricted out of voting and the legislative process, the part that Democrats might underestimate is how much Republican turnout it could increase.

One of the key characteristics of the 2020 Election Cycle was the massive spike in voter turnout. Thanks to the expansion of vote-by-mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw the largest percentage of turnout in a presidential election since 1900 (at 66.7%!). However, that turnout spike was very equal on both sides despite this being a supposed wave year. As stated before, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump broke the record for most votes ever in a Presidential race. In the House elections, Democrats received a record 77 million votes while Republicans received nearly 73 million (and this was the race where Democrats lost seats). In many instances you had incumbents winning more votes than they did in their original elections, but still lost due to a Republican spike in turnout.

While this isn’t saying Democrats shouldn’t expand voting rights because Republicans would also benefit , it’s a warning to those who say that increased turnout will guarantee Democrats more electoral victories. Just because everyone is voting doesn’t mean all the new voters are all voting blue, and Democrats need to remember that high turnout could greatly backfire if they’re on the other side of unpopularity.

There’s also the case of eliminating the filibuster. If Democrats are to pass HR 1, they would need to do so by eliminating the arbitrary Senate rule of the filibuster, which says you need 60 votes instead of a 51-vote majority to end debate and vote on a bill. Historically politicians on both sides of the aisle have been weary of eliminating the filibuster, since it could backfire in the future when that certain party is no longer in the majority. If Democrats move to eliminate the filibuster for election-related laws (or outright abolish it), it could backfire in the future if (and more than likely when) Republicans retake control of the chamber. Who’s to say Republicans don’t seek revenge and pass a nationwide voter-ID law to lower voter turnout in the future, or reinstate partisan gerrymandering by straight up repealing HR 1? These are all big hypotheticals that can quickly come back to bite Democrats in the behind if they don’t worry about that.

Joe Manchin III (D-WV) is considered one of the biggest obstacles to passing HR 1, as he has repeatedly voiced his concern and hesitancy to eliminate the filibuster (credit: businessinsider.com / Leigh Vogel/Pool via AP, File)

Why those points don’t really matter

While I understand concerns about the filibuster, the truth is that Republicans have already modified the filibuster on issues that matter to them. The most notable piece of evidence was in 2017, when they modified the filibuster to allow Supreme Court justices to be confirmed with only 50 votes. Judicial nominees are an extremely important issue for Republicans due to issues like abortion, and this was how they were able to confirm an absurd amount of conservative federal judges and three Supreme Court nominees over just four years. While it’s understandable to be concerned that Republicans could perhaps go “nuclear” on more issues in the event the filibuster is modified, there’s little reason to believe they haven’t already done that. Why live in fear if the damage has already been done?

In terms of increased Republican turnout and the citation of Democratic underperformance in the 2020 Election, the connection might be more correlation than causality. While the Democrats did indeed lose seats despite winning a record number of votes in House elections, it’s important to remember that a lot of those districts were drawn by Republican legislatures at the beginning of the decade (meaning they’re gerrymandered and meant to favor Republicans). Because HR 1 also works to curtail partisan gerrymandering, it’s possible that in a future election with similar results Democrats do better thanks to fairer districts.

Nonetheless, Democrats need to keep fighting for it

In the end, HR 1 is the Democrats’ “do-or-die” bill. If they pass it, they can prevent their own base from being locked out elections while greatly expanding voting access. If they don’t, then they can say goodbye to the House majority in 2022 and likely any of President Biden’s legislative agenda for the two years after that. If Democrats don’t want a repeat of the 2010’s (when they lost the House, Senate, and White House in a span of six years), then passing HR 1 is the number one priority.

Journalism and Government Senior at the University of Texas at Austin