H.R. 1, known as the “For the People Act,” now awaiting its fate in the Senate, would give the federal government raw power over states’ ability to oversee elections and decide voting districts. But more ominous is the bill’s language requiring the government to apply an unconstitutional religious test for citizens seeking to serve on federally mandated redistricting commissions.
That’s the consensus of religious freedom advocates and conservative policy experts wading through the roughly 800-page bill. Championed by Democratic supporters as a voting rights and anti-corruption act, H.R. 1 is aimed at rooting out “dark money” influence and partisan gerrymandering. But critics argue the bill’s fine print would cut right at the heart of the First Amendment.
“Tucked away in H.R. 1, a bill intended to enact sweeping election reforms, is a problematic religious test for public service—this time on redistricting commissions set up by the bill,” said Travis Weber, vice president of policy and government affairs at the Washington-based Family Research Council.
H.R. 1 would require citizens being considered for service on “independent redistricting commissions”—a task now handled by elected state legislatures—to disclose “involvement with, or financial support of, professional, social, political, religious or community organizations or causes.” The commissions would have no accountability to voters.
“While it may appear minor,” Weber wrote on the organization’s blog, “this is incredibly problematic because it suggests that religious affiliations may affect an individual’s ability to be impartial, and thereby may make them ineligible to serve on the commission. This is not only discriminatory, but also unconstitutional.”
Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
“This is a tradition that has protected religious believers from discrimination for centuries,” Weber added.
Hans A. von Spakovsky of the conservative Heritage Foundation, agrees, adding, “Forcing individuals to disclose their religious affiliation potentially puts them in the position of not being chosen due to their religious beliefs, which is essentially a prohibited religious test.”
The requirements also infringe on constitutional guarantees of free association related to civic groups and other nonprofits. The Supreme Court has defended such guarantees for decades, ruling in 1958 that Alabama could not force the NAACP to divulge its membership lists—a tactic the state was using to intimidate and silence African Americans.
But with H.R. 1, von Spakovsky wrote, “not only do you have to disclose which church, mosque or synagogue you attend, but also your support for nonprofit organizations, such as the NAACP or the NRA, NARAL or Citizens for Life.”
The stated aim of such requirements is a nonpartisan commission, but the law, critics say, would lead to the government favoring or disfavoring certain viewpoints and people based on gender, race, beliefs and associations.
The House of Representatives passed H.R. 1 on March 3 with no Republican support and only one Democrat opposing it. Its Senate version, S. 1, faces more difficult odds. The Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass legislation is a high bar. Nevertheless, conservatives are raising alarms because of a Democratic president and the slightest Democratic majority in the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote.
Especially problematic is H.R. 1’s empowerment of the federal government to strip the states of their supervision of congressional elections, say opponents such as the Lawyers Democracy Fund. The group released a list of ways they believe H.R. 1 would threaten free and fair elections. Among their concerns, the bill:
- Overrides existing state voter ID laws by allowing any person of voting age who wishes to vote to simply sign a document stating they are who they claim to be.
- Forces states to hold 15 days of early voting with federally mandated hours and requirements for voting locations.
- Mandates “same-day registration,” allowing someone to vote immediately—a recipe for fraud, critics say.
- Allows online voter registration without requirements to verify voter eligibility—another potential liability for election integrity.
- Restricts the ability of local officials to ensure the accuracy of registered voter lists.
- Requires every state to allow felons to vote upon release.
- Authorizes the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the political and policy positions of some categories of nonprofits, effectively allowing each successive administration to go after political opponents.
And in addition to the mandate for nonelected redistricting commissions, H.R. 1 would also expand the roles of the Election Assistance Commission, Homeland Security and the Justice Department in overseeing elections.
Also under the bill, the Federal Election Commission—now six commissioners—would be reduced to five. Currently, commissioners are appointed by a sitting president to staggered six-year terms. No more than three members of a political party can sit on the commission, but by reducing the commission to five members, one party would have a numerical edge in decision-making.
Todd Chasteen, vice president of public policy and general counsel at Samaritan’s Purse, said a Christian worldview reminds him of the adage that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
“Giving too much unchecked power to any person or any group of people tends to corrupt because of our fallen human condition,” he said. “H.R. 1, craftily named the For the People Act of 2021, is one thing and one thing only—a power grab shifting the voting process from the states into the hands of a federal government with far too much power already.”
The bill, Chasteen said, would give the federal government and executive branch “raw, intrusive power.”
“H.R. 1 is a recipe for corruption and would be ruinous to the great need we have for election integrity.”
Above: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) speaks alongside Democratic members of the House about H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 2019.
Photo: AFP via Saul Loeb, Getty Images