Democrats pass historic voting bill.

Plus, should Texas be reopening?
Isaac Saul Mar 4, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone forwarded you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

Democrats pass a voting rights bill. Plus, a reader asks what I think about Texas reopening.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is leading a deluge of legislation through the House of Representatives. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Reader feedback.

Sam from Raleigh, North Carolina wrote in to object to my take on Biden’s strikes in Syria. “What exactly do you expect Biden to do here? Some of your take sounds like echoes of the terrorists who justified their initial attack. America is not ‘occupying Iraq,’ they're supporting local partners and allies… The issue is that we're here now, and American troops were targeted, leaving a US contractor killed and six others wounded. What do you expect Biden to do about that? Just ignore it, let the terrorists win and desert Iraq? According to reporting, ‘The Pentagon offered up larger groups of targets but Mr. Biden approved a less aggressive option, American officials said.’

“Americans support taking an active part in the world's affairs, and only 20% (n=675) think that US security alliances in the Middle East don't benefit anyone,” he added. “How is this action helping American families? By suppressing terrorism and violent attacks against US troops.”

Quick hits.

  1. Democrats passed a bill named for George Floyd to overhaul law enforcement practices yesterday. The legislation would ban chokeholds, create a database to track police misconduct and prohibit certain no-knock warrants. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  2. The House of Representatives canceled a legislative session on Thursday after police warned them of a plot by a militia group to storm the Capitol. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security said the threat stemmed from a conspiracy theory that President Trump would be inaugurated on March 4th with the help of the U.S. military. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  3. Senate Democrats limited the eligibility of those who could receive $1,400 stimulus checks, excluding individuals making more than $80,000 a year or couples making more than $160,000 a year. (CBS News)
  4. Progress against the spread of COVID-19 has seemingly stalled, with new daily cases leveling out at about 65,000 a day, the same rate we saw during summer surges. Epidemiologists are warning that we could see a fourth surge before the summer if Americans let their guards down before a larger proportion of the population is vaccinated. (Axios)
  5. The head of the National Republican Congressional Committee told Trump to back off attacks on House Republicans who voted to impeach him, insisting his plans to challenge Republicans could undermine their efforts at retaking the House in 2022. (Politico)

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What D.C. is talking about.

Voting rights. On Wednesday, Democrats passed H.R. 1, a bill dubbed the “For the People Act,” through the House of Representatives. The bill passed almost entirely on party lines, by a 220 to 210 vote (one Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson from Mississippi, voted against the bill).

The bill would use federal powers to eliminate any state voter-identification requirements, would make coronavirus-era mail-in voting options permanent, would require same-day registration option and would create 15 days of early voting in states across the U.S. There is language in the bill that also aims to re-work how voting districts are drawn, calling for independent commissions to oversee how each state draws their lines in an attempt to end gerrymandering.

Some less often discussed components of the bill allow a person to designate someone else to return their ballot (i.e. a kind of ballot harvesting, which we discussed Tuesday) and require organizations who engage in political activities to disclose the names and amounts of any donor who gives over $10,000 annually, according to The Wall Street Journal. The bill would also restore voting rights to felons who have been released from prison and automatically register voters whose names are in other government databases, even if the person is as young as 16 (i.e. if someone were on unemployment insurance, they could be automatically registered to vote).

There’s also a small-donor financing mechanism which allows candidates to opt into a system that matches fractions of the money they raise from single donors who give less than $200.

The 791-page bill faces long odds in the Senate, where it would require 60 votes for passage. However, it’s the kind of legislation that’s so enthusiastically supported by the left it could spur new calls to abolish the filibuster, which would allow Democrats to pass the bill with just 50 votes and a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris. It’s being pushed at the same time that Republican state legislatures across the country are trying to institute rules with nearly opposite effects on voting laws at the state level.

What the left is saying.

The left supports the bill, arguing that it would bring more integrity to elections and remove barriers for Americans to vote.

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board wrote that the filibuster was a “small sacrifice” to make for H.R. 1.

“With the Republican Party broadly embracing election disinformation, voter suppression and minority rule, it falls to Democrats to bear the standard of democracy,” the board said. “The House on Wednesday considered Democrats’ signature response to the party opposite’s authoritarian drift in the form of HR1, an omnibus of election, redistricting and campaign finance reforms. Its fate and perhaps that of American democracy depend on the Democrats’ willingness to use the majority they narrowly won in the Senate, where their 50 seats represent 41.5 million more Americans than the equivalent Republican caucus.

“HR1 would stem this anti-democratic movement by setting national standards for ballot access, easing voter registration nationwide, requiring early voting and prohibiting excessive barriers to voting by mail,” it said. “It would also impose more transparency on large political donations and create a matching system for small donations to congressional campaigns. And it would mandate California-style independent redistricting commissions to prevent partisan gerrymandering. While these measures would empower voters regardless of their politics, they are unlikely to draw much support from a party increasingly dedicated to voter suppression and amenable to overturning elections.”

In CNN, Chris Cillizza said the most important thing this bill would do is “remove (or greatly lessen) the influence of partisanship in the drawing of the congressional lines every 10 years.”

“The ‘For the People Act’ would require that every state establish a 15-person independent commission -- comprised of five Republicans, five Democrats and five independents or members of other smaller parties -- to redraw the district lines following the decennial census and the reapportionment of the 435 congressional seats that follows… At the moment, the vast majority of states -- 31 -- rely on the state legislature to draw congressional lines following the Census… What that has meant, particularly over the last two decades, are maps that tend to protect incumbents of both parties.

“The strategy of both sides has been simple: Pack as many of the opposition party's voters into as few districts in the state as possible while spreading out their own voters to make as many districts winnable for their side as they can… What that approach has produced is a whole lot of seats in which the only possibility of competitiveness is in either the Democratic or Republican primary. Consider this: In 1956, less than 6 in 10 House incumbents won with 60% of the vote or more, according to Vital Statistics on Congress. By 2002, the first election after the 2001 nationwide redistricting, 85% of all House incumbents seeking reelection won with 60% or higher.”

In The Washington Post, two ACLU lawyers took a surprising stance of dissent, saying they “strongly support many of the critical reforms contained in H.R.1,” but that the bill “contains significant flaws that are detrimental to the health of our democracy and will likely have unintended consequences on the political rights of noncitizen immigrants as well as many nonprofits, including civil rights organizations and other civil liberties movement builders.”

Specifically, they objected to disclosure requirements for donors that give more than $10,000, saying “it could directly interfere with the ability of many to engage in political speech about causes that they care about,” and arguing that “We know from history that people engaged in politically charged issues become political targets and are often subject to threats of harassment or even violence.”

What the right is saying.

The right is opposed to the bill, saying it would codify many of the changes that caused chaos in 2020 and would give Democrats a permanent advantage in future elections.

In The Hill, Rep. Claudia Tenney (NY-R) said H.R.1 “won’t make our elections safer, instead it will give House Democrats an advantage in future elections by eliminating nearly every institutional guardrail that preserves the sanctity of the ballot box today.”

“First, H.R. 1 would prevent election officials from maintaining accurate voter lists and make it harder for them to determine if voters are registered in multiple jurisdictions,” she said. “Second, the bill would dramatically expand automatic voter registration. People who never even provide their consent could be added to voter rolls. H.R. 1 goes so far as designating colleges as automatic voter registration agencies and making it easier to harvest ballots.

“Third, H.R. 1 would make same-day voter registration the national standard. Ballots would be cast and counted before officials even have time to verify a voter is eligible or the information provided by them is accurate. The majority of states do not have same-day voter registration, but H.R. 1 would overrule them and mandate it anyway. The bill would also prohibit commonsense voter ID rules, require no-excuse absentee and early voting, permit felons to vote, and allow people to vote at the wrong polling place. H.R. 1 is a recipe for disaster. I would know, having prevailed recently in the race for New York’s 22nd District after an exhaustive count that went on for nearly 100 days.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said H.R. 1 would make every election like 2020.

“If you thought the 2020 election ran like a finely oiled machine, you’ll love what Democrats plan next,” the board said. “Start with permanent pandemic rules. H.R.1 would create a federal right to a mail ballot, no excuse necessary. Registered voters couldn’t be made to submit ‘any form of identification as a condition of obtaining an absentee ballot,’ except a signature or ‘affirmation.’ State laws requiring mail votes to be notarized or signed by witnesses would be trumped. Late-arriving ballots, if postmarked on time, would be valid nationwide for 10 days after Election Day.

“H.R.1 would overrule state laws against ballot harvesting, letting Americans nationwide ‘designate any person’ to return a vote, provided the carrier ‘does not receive any form of compensation based on the number of ballots,’” the board said. “Also, states ‘may not put any limit on how many voted and sealed absentee ballots any designated person can return.’ Yes, paid partisan operatives could go door to door, amassing thousands of votes, as long as they billed by the hour.”

My take.

Here’s what I love from H.R. 1: the new rules on redistricting, the ability for felons to vote and the expansion of early voting.

First, redistricting: We currently live in a country where (in most states) politicians are choosing their voters instead of the other way around. This is a fundamentally broken model. I don’t care who is in power, partisans shouldn't be allowed to draw districts in order to preserve their power. That’s not a democracy, and gerrymandering is destroying competitive races. In states like Iowa, where non-partisan commissions run the show, we’ve seen more competitive races and less partisan bickering because candidates are trying to win broad appeal across party lines. It actually works.

Second, felons voting: If you go to jail for a crime and serve your time, you should be allowed to vote. There’s a good argument that even if you are in jail you should be allowed to vote, but that’s not what this bill is calling for so it’s not worth debating here. A prisoner should not have to pay off all their fines in order to cast a ballot. Every American gets to vote, and the 6.1 million Americans still disenfranchised for crimes they’ve already paid a penance for is a travesty.

Third, early voting: Much was made about the delay in results during the 2020 elections, but we know why this happened. It’s because in states like Pennsylvania and Arizona, voting centers weren’t allowed to begin processing and counting mail-in and early ballots until election day. Republicans who control those state elections opposed any bills to allow it, then cried foul when ballots took days to count. That’s textbook political crap. Create a problem with the solution, then say the problem is the solution. Republican-controlled states like Florida and Ohio have robust early voting laws and the ability to process ballots as they come in, weeks in advance. Both those states went red, had clear results on election night, and had little drama around their counts. Why would we not mimic what they do nationally?

Another thing I like from H.R. 1: the attempts to make money in politics more transparent. Kudos to Democrats for giving it a shot. The ACLU lawyers raise good questions about how this would impact political speech, but they don’t offer a solution. I want to know who is funding political campaigns, and Americans do too. One of the most intriguing parts of Trumpism was the challenges it made to the “swamp,” the “establishment,” the “donor class” and the “corporate elite.” Here’s an opportunity to put them all on their heels. Why would Republicans oppose it?

Here’s what I don’t like from H.R. 1: this bill would override state laws against ballot harvesting. The federal government has Constitutional power here, but that seems a bit too in the weeds for me. This feels like something that should be a state legislature’s choice, and far too many states have opted out. It’s also clear it would open the door for more organized, national, overt ballot harvesting being conducted by paid political operatives in battleground states. Sorry, not a fan.

I’m similarly skeptical of the “freedom from influence fund,” which would allow candidates to get a 6-to-1 match for small donors from a public fund. Democrats want to create a fund from fines collected from tax cheats and companies who are fined by the feds for criminal activity. Then, if a candidate opts in, they’ll get $6 from the fund for every $1 of small-donor money. I get the idea: challenge the rich, corporate-backed candidates. But that money is public money, taxpayer funds in the treasury, and I don’t think it should be getting funneled into elections.

Here’s what I hate from H.R. 1: the bill includes language about instituting a Supreme Court code of conduct for justices. This has little or nothing to do with the crux of the bill, and seems like free red meat for the opposition to point out that it’s being stuffed with Democratic pork, which is not something I’ll ever support either party doing.

There are other questions that need answering, too. I see the merit in automatic voter registration and have always wondered why the U.S. doesn’t do it. But if states don’t play ball then they’ll have to maintain two separate voter rolls — one for state elections and one for federal elections. It’s easy to imagine the chaos given they have enough trouble maintaining a single set right now. At its heart, that’s the biggest challenge this bill faces: Will states follow suit? And what happens if they don’t? We’ll have different rules for state and federal elections — which isn’t inherently an issue but could make things messier before it makes things better.

Would Democrats be fighting for this bill if it hurt their election odds? Of course not. But plenty of these proposals can stand on their own merits. And that’s more than what a lot of Republican state legislators can say, like the ones in Georgia currently trying to prohibit early voting on Sundays. Why would they do that? Perhaps because Black churches there run “Souls to the Polls” campaigns where voters go from church to vote, which helped Democrats win the state in 2020, and left Black voters casting ballots 10 times as often on Sunday as white voters. Such obvious, cynical, unrepentant attempts at voter suppression demand a response. This bill is far from perfect, and I’ve long maintained states need a level of autonomy in their elections, but it’s a decent start.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he was going to lift the mask mandate and reopen businesses 100%, I’ve seen nothing but scorn and derision toward him. You’ve said before you are skeptical whenever there seems to be a total, complete agreement on an issue, and I’m wondering what you think about this? What’s the case in favor of Gov. Abbott?

— Derek, San Antonio, Texas

Tangle: First, I’m glad you asked this question. To your point, today’s newsletter was actually going to be about Abbott’s decision but, to my surprise, I really struggled to find any opinion columnists, editorial boards or even Texas politicians publicly rushing to his defense. There were plenty of people tweeting and going on TV to celebrate his decision, but not many people making the case in writing.

The case for lifting the mandate and reopening businesses is twofold. One, the pandemic is clearly headed in the right direction, and Texas is a good example: cases and hospitalizations have plummeted since mid-January. Initially, the stated goal of lockdowns was to flatten the curve. That happened, to a degree, across the country. But now we’re a year into it and Texas is in a much better place than it was a few months ago. Pair that with absolute economic devastation, and there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to allow businesses back to full capacity. We cannot keep dismissing the destruction of so many livelihoods to contain the virus.

Two is that lifting a mandate is different from insisting nobody wear a mask or saying everyone must open their business. 15 other states have no mask mandates, and some of them are doing just as well against COVID-19 as states that do. He’s giving Texans the freedom to choose. A lot of people reacted as if it was the opposite, and I think in that sense some of the criticism was unfair. Most businesses in Texas will still require a mask, they just won’t be required by law to do so. Many businesses will probably remain closed, too, and Texans will still benefit from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus package that will give out enhanced unemployment benefits.

There’s also just the general “personality” of the state. Texas is where freedom rings. I love Texas, and I love the culture of individual liberty and the loving embrace of its wild west roots that still exists there. I think Abbott has, in many ways, tried to embody that personality, and I imagine plenty of Texans love him for it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the mandate was lifted on Texas Independence Day.

But it’s also worth noting he was taking heat. In fact, it was fellow Republicans who had been hammering him to reopen the state, and they seem to have helped his approval rating fall amongst Republicans by about 10%. I think part of this is also that Abbott’s hand was forced by the right wing of the Texas Republican party.

Here’s what I’ll say, though: Texas is near the bottom in percentage of its population that has been vaccinated. It also tried reopening early this past summer, with disastrous results, only to have to reverse course. While cases have gone down these last few months, they’re also ticking up right now. The light seems to be getting brighter and brighter at the end of the tunnel, and with warmer days and more vaccines still a few weeks away this strikes me as a massive risk. I’m not sure I’d take it, even with the tremendous pressure to get the economy going. Abbott could be a hero, but in a few months, he could also be overseeing a state that’s still stuck in the pandemic while the rest of us are breaking free.

A story that matters.

More than one in three nonprofits are in jeopardy of closing in the next two years because of financial damage from the COVID-19 pandemic. A new study found that, in a worst-case scenario, 38% of the 300,000 nonprofits in America would go under. In the most realistic outcomes, the number was still in the double digits, a cataclysmic hit. Among the most vulnerable were those tied to arts and entertainment, where in-person events and ticket sales were primary drivers of revenue. (Associated Press)


  • 77. The average time, in hours, that migrant children are being held at border facilities before being moved into housing or released.
  • 341. For the last 21 days, the average number of unaccompanied minors being detained a day along the border.
  • 13.9 out of 10,000. In 2016, the number of jobs on ZipRecruiter that advertised a four-day work week.
  • 61.9 out of 10,000. This year, the number of jobs on ZipRecruiter that advertised a four-day work week.
  • 34%. The percentage of Americans who said they see China as an “enemy” in a new poll of 2,549 adults.

See you tomorrow?

On Fridays, paying subscribers to Tangle get special editions. Tomorrow, subscribers are getting a deep dive on money in politics: the history, where we’re at now and whether spending actually helps candidates win. If that’s a topic you’re interested in, subscribe below so you receive the edition:

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Have a nice day.

A clever teenager in Poland has come up with a fake cosmetics website that will help people report instances of domestic abuse. The site is designed to look as if someone is doing online shopping, but certain actions are all coded to alert people if you are a victim of abuse. For instance, if you buy a skin product, you’ll be met by a “customer service” agent who is actually a therapist and will ask about your “skin problems” which is code for domestic abuse. If you check out with an address on a purchase, authorities will come to your home. Krystyna Paszko, the 17-year-old behind the product, just won a $12,000 prize and recognition from the European Union for her idea. (BBC News)


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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