In an effort to push the Biden presidency in a more progressive direction, Penn Justice Democrats, formerly Penn for Bernie, is focusing on addressing voter disenfranchisement and supporting progressive candidates. The club is working to mobilize support for the "For the People Act," which progressive organizations across the country say will increase voting accessibility, protect the right to vote for marginalized communities, and establish nonpartisan redistricting committees to eliminate gerrymandering.
The "For the People Act" also contains provisions to force “dark money” groups and super PACs – independent committees that can receive unlimited funding to support political activity – to publicly disclose their donors in order to ensure that elections remain fair and transparent. Financed by a charge on banks or corporations paying legal penalties, the bill would also create a public funding match for small-dollar donations that amplify the impact of private contributions to participating federal candidates.
While a previous version of the bill, also known as H.R. 1, was initially passed in the House of Representatives in 2019, it was blocked from receiving a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. After the House reintroduced and passed it in March 2021, the bill awaits a vote in the split Senate and may need to overcome a filibuster.
Penn Justice Dems launched the partnership with Un-PAC, the self-labeled “PAC to end all PACs,” after one of Un-PAC’s founders and current executive director, Shana Gallagher, reached out about the new organization two months ago. College junior and Speaker Events Director of Penn Justice Democrats Amira Chowdhury said that because Penn Justice Dems had an existing connection with Gallagher, who was the former national student organizing director for Sander’s 2020 presidential campaign, the club saw the collaboration as a natural fit.
Now, Chowdhury said that Penn Justice Dems is focused on finding new ways to fight for equitable policy changes and candidates who are willing to challenge the status quo in Washington and put action behind their promises. The club tries to reach specific goals each week, Chowdhury added, such as having members reach out to at least five other students and tell them to call their senators to support H.R. 1 and sign Un-PAC’s pledge.
In addition to posting information on social media about H.R. 1 and organizing phone call campaigns to the office of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to place pressure on the bill, Penn Justice Dems Communications Co-Chair and College junior Jack Cahill said the club is also scheduled to have a constituency meeting with Toomey and other Pennsylvania progressive student groups in the coming weeks.
“As [Pennsylvania] students, we have been working to really push our senator to support this reform,” Chowdhury said. “In order for us to be able to materialize the progressive goals that we hope to achieve, we must fundamentally change the structure with our organizing.”
Penn Justice Democrats Outreach Chair and College junior Tara Yazdan Panah believes that since Toomey is a retiring Republican senator who may be concerned about his legacy, he might be easier to sway on this legislation. She said that it is essential for lawmakers to understand how important this legislation is for young people who are often overlooked by politicians.
“Students are an important constituency that representatives often forget about,” Yazdan Panah said. “This legislation affects us just as much as everybody else, so we are going to be telling Senator Toomey our own stories about why this legislation is important to us.”
Although the legislation encompasses many different types of democratic reform, including requirements for presidents to disclose their tax returns, Cahill said that passing H.R. 1 is most important because it modernizes voter registration and changes how political campaigns are financed — which he said may allow more progressive candidates who are more representative of their constituents to take office.
“Right now, elections are effectively bought and sold, and you can predict with remarkable accuracy the outcome of political elections just by looking at how much money each of the candidates [has] raised. It is deeply disturbing to ask where all that money is coming from,” Cahill said. “[H.R. 1] effectively incentivizes new candidates to run campaigns that are funded by small-dollar donations.”
Agreeing with Cahill, Gallagher wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that American democracy is broken because “big money in politics blocks solutions to all the crises that our generation faces” — from systemic racism to climate change.
Since she helped launch Un-PAC in March 2021, Gallagher wrote to the DP that she has been fighting for national politicians to listen and base decisions off of young people. She wrote that by reforming current campaign finance policies and making it easier to vote, passing H.R. 1 is the first step to ensuring the government works for all Americans.
While there are many bold ideas and important pieces of legislation that progressives want to see put into law, Chowdhury said that this fight is essentially futile without changing the political process to be more welcoming to new visions.
“H.R. 1 includes a transformative set of reforms, from campaign finance reform to voting rights reform, that’s quite critical right now, Chowdhury said. “If we don’t have the structural change, then all other progressive ideas will remain as a dream in the American political reality that we live in.”