American Democracy is Not “For the People” — But it Can Be

By Ilana Beller

For seven years, I ran youth programs where I worked with children and families who lived in underserved communities. During that time, I made friends who I call family, and I witnessed how broken our democracy is and how deeply it needs reform.

Families I worked with lacked access to clean water, and in some homes, the water ran black. Children would go without showers for weeks. Parents faced the impossible choice of buying water or feeding their families. But access to clean water is just the tip of the iceberg. From dental care to accessible supermarkets, too many communities in the United States struggle to access life’s basic necessities.

America’s historical narrative tells us our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Thus, if communities suffer because our government is failing them, they should vote to elect representatives who will change things for the better. But our democracy, as it exists today, silences these voices — from gerrymandered districts that erode the principle of “one person one vote” to voter suppression laws that make it harder to make our voices heard.

In too many communities, the nearest polling place is miles away, and most residents do not have a vehicle nor a driver’s license, so showing a valid ID to vote is a challenge. Many states have enacted strict voter ID laws and onerous absentee ballot rules that make it difficult to cast a ballot. This year, there are already 165 voter suppression bills that are prefiled, moving or passed through 33 state legislatures that will make it even harder to vote. Fortunately, Virginia is no longer one of them, but we still see how big money and corporate special interests drown out the voices of everyday people. One example is Dominion Energy, which spends millions of dollars each year to advance policies that benefit the fossil fuel industry, pollute our environment, and cause adverse health impacts in disadvantaged communities.

Right now, too many Americans are effectively barred from participating in a democracy that is supposed to be “for the people.” But an ambitious, once-in-a-generation bill called the For the People Act would transform our broken democracy into one where all voices are heard. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have made this bill their first priorities after securing COVID-19 relief.

The For the People Act — introduced in the House as H.R 1 and set to be introduced in the Senate as S. 1 — would rebuild our dysfunctional democracy from the ground up. It would expand and protect voting rights for all, end partisan and racial gerrymandering, curtail the influence of big money in politics, and restore transparency, ethics and accountability in our government. The bill would also create a system of national automatic voter registration, making it easier for people of color and young people to register to vote. It would also make voting by mail much more accessible, giving those without transportation a greater opportunity to vote.

Beyond voting rights, the For the People Act would also curtail the power of special interests in our elections. In addition to common sense ethics reforms, it would establish a small-donor matching system that will make it easier for everyday people to run for office, especially people of color, women, and other historically underrepresented groups.

As a Virginian and someone who has worked on several political campaigns in our commonwealth, I am proud and thankful that all seven of our Democratic U.S. Representatives (Reps. Spanberger, Wexton, McEachin, Luria, Scott, Beyer, and Connolly) have signed on as co-sponsors to the For the People Act, but we still have a long way to go.

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote on the For the People Act this week, and then begins the fight to pass it in the Senate. As a Virginian, I urge Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner to vote for and champion the For the People Act. It’s time to enact these bold reforms to build a more just, fair and inclusive democratic society. Together, we can fulfill the promise of a democracy that is truly for the people.

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