On July 18, 2023, Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives jointly refiled the Freedom to Vote Act (S. 1, H.R. 11), 18 months after a previous version passed the House and had the support of 50 senators but was ultimately filibustered in the Senate. This far-reaching reform package would set baseline national standards for federal elections that would override many anti-democracy laws passed by at least 20 state legislatures in the past few years. It would also reduce the corrupting influence of special interest money in politics and end partisan gerrymandering.
The Freedom to Vote Act remains transformative legislation that our democracy needs not only to survive but to thrive for future generations of Americans. Its full range of reforms would go far in building a stronger, more inclusive democracy that more fairly represents all Americans, no matter their ZIP code, race, age, or party affiliation. Moreover, the legislation would help rebuild trust in U.S. elections and the political process, which, in turn, would increase faith in government and reduce the harmful extremism and violence that have been corroding our system.
The Freedom to Vote Act remains transformative legislation that our democracy needs not only to survive but to thrive for future generations of Americans.
This column discusses nine specific ways the Freedom to Vote Act would strengthen American democracy in the wake of coordinated efforts to weaken it.
In just a few short years, the Freedom to Vote Act—which the Center for American Progress has discussed in prior publications—has become ever more critical and a linchpin of the pro-democracy reform movement. Along with the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4), which would update and restore crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Washington, D.C., statehood legislation (S. 51, H.R. 51), the Freedom to Vote Act would address some of the most pressing challenges to free and fair elections and campaign-related corruption.
In January 2022, the House passed the Freedom to Vote Act, but a few weeks later, the bill was blocked from debate in the Senate by outmoded filibuster rules despite having the support of 50 senators and the vice president, who would have been called on to break a tie. Subsequently, two Democratic senators joined every Republican senator in rejecting a change to filibuster rules that would have more easily allowed the legislation to pass by a simple majority vote.
The Freedom to Vote Act would be a huge step toward creating a more resilient and fully representative democracy that can more effectively deliver tangible results for the American people.
But during the next Congress, in July 2023, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), joined by all Democratic senators, refiled the Freedom to Vote Act, again giving it the S. 1 designation to signal the importance of the legislation. At the same time, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) filed parallel legislation, joined by the vast majority of his caucus. Although the legislation will likely run into the same challenges with the filibuster in the Senate, as well as opposition from the House majority, Schumer and Jeffries have vowed to fight for the Freedom to Vote Act for as long as it takes. President Joe Biden has also reaffirmed his strong support for the legislation.
How the Freedom to Vote Act helps fortify democracy
The Freedom to Vote Act is popular legislation that includes a multitude of crucial reforms. In many ways, the legislation takes best practices and standards that have been in place in states across the country for years—sometimes decades—to set minimum baseline national standards for federal elections that would ensure all Americans can easily and securely cast their ballot, regardless of their ZIP code. These reforms are not intended to benefit one political party over another and have often been enacted in states on a bipartisan basis. Rather, they are designed to give effective political power to all Americans, no matter where they live or which candidates they support.
The following list details nine ways the Freedom to Vote Act would strengthen democracy and counteract states’ anti-democracy legislation.
1. Bolster election security and integrity
The Freedom to Vote Act would improve election security, including by ensuring voter-verifiable and auditable paper ballots, setting election cybersecurity standards, improving post-election audits, establishing ballot chain-of-custody rules, and updating election certification requirements—all of which would make it harder to cheat or sabotage valid election results. Importantly, the bill also contains provisions to reduce foreign interference in elections, which would help strengthen national security.
2. Expand voting options
The Freedom to Vote Act would ensure that all Americans can cast their ballot in the way that works best for them. The legislation would expand voting options by providing access to early voting and mail-in voting and helping shorten in-person wait times, while also creating a new statutory right for people to bring legal action if their voting rights are infringed.
3. Modernize voter registration
The Freedom to Vote Act would ensure that all voters have access to automatic, same-day, and online voter registration systems, making it easier for eligible voters to exercise their right to choose their elected leaders.
4. Restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated Americans
The Freedom to Vote Act would further increase representation by restoring the right to vote for people who have paid their debt to society after serving a felony sentence—a right still denied to nearly 6 million Americans.
5. Protect election officials and workers
Election officials and workers are increasingly under attack from partisan officials as well as extremists who have threatened their lives and jobs based on harmful disinformation about widespread voter fraud. In response, the Freedom to Vote Act increases resources and protections for these public servants while making it harder to have them removed from their positions for partisan reasons without good cause.
6. Stop partisan gerrymandering
One of the most important reforms in the Freedom to Vote Act is a prohibition on states drawing congressional maps for unfair partisan advantage that also establishes procedural safeguards to allow people to quickly challenge such maps. Fairly drawn districts would help create more competitive districts, reduce the incentive for extremism, and make Congress more representative of the American people.
7. Add transparency to the corrupted campaign finance system
The Freedom to Vote Act shines a bright light on secret money spent by wealthy special interests, billionaires, and corporations—which are often significantly owned and influenced by foreign investors. The legislation would also require super PACs to be much more independent of candidates they support; strengthen online advertisement disclaimers and disclosures; and restructure the Federal Election Commission to better enforce election laws in the public interest.
8. Begin a transition to publicly funded election campaigns
Following the lead of several successful state and local systems around the country, the Freedom to Vote Act would establish a new voluntary federal matching system for small-dollar campaign donations, which would give millions of Americans a greater role in supporting and electing diverse lawmakers who are not dependent on deep-pocketed donors.
9. Help reduce dangerous election denialism, political extremism, and violence
The Freedom to Vote Act would help create a more representative democracy in which all Americans feel like they have an equal right to participate in elections that are fair, transparent, secure, and immune from partisan sabotage, leading to more trust in election results and greater respect for opposing political viewpoints. In such a democracy, people would be less prone to believe election conspiracies and more willing to reject calls to political violence. Ultimately, more Americans would gain confidence that their duly elected leaders can address pressing policy issues, such as rising costs, health care, climate change, and gun violence prevention.
Read more on the Freedom to Vote Act
Passing groundbreaking structural reform legislation is rarely simple, but it’s worth the fight. The Freedom to Vote Act is built on unassailable pro-democracy principles and offers a critically needed buttress against autocracy and the relentless attacks on elections by extremist state legislatures across the country. Once passed, the Freedom to Vote Act would be a huge step toward creating a more resilient and fully representative democracy that can more effectively deliver tangible results for the American people.