It’s been nearly three long months since H.R. 1, also known as the For the People Act, was first introduced on the House floor on January 4. The bill, which would put in place uniform federal election rules for all 50 states, would also limit partisan gerrymandering, modernize voter registration, strengthen election security, enforce campaign finance laws, broaden access to the ballot, and simplify mail-in voting. It would also give Washington, D.C., state status and improve voting rights in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories. H.R. 1 boasts backing from Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Raphael Warnock, and Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Many activist and advocacy groups have emerged, not simply to aid Democrats in the fight for H.R. 1, but to ensure comprehensive democracy reform as they believe it’s the first step toward meaningful action on pressing matters like systemic racism, climate change, health care, and workers’ rights. One such group is the newly announced Un-PAC. The first and only student organizing group in the country that is focusing specifically on democracy reform, it’s led by three former staffers of Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns: Shana Gallagher, Joseline Garcia, and Caleb Wilson.
Gallagher, executive director, and Garcia, organizing director, were behind the historic Students for Bernie program, a grassroots organization that mobilized thousands of youths in all 50 states and Puerto Rico to increase voter participation and enhance progressive politics. It’s their belief that Un-PAC will be an extension of the Students for Bernie program, though this time, the group will also work with independent, conservative, and moderate students to put pressure on their representatives.
Despite a swift move through the House, H.R. 1 now faces a myriad of challenges in the Senate, wherein a minimum of 10 Republican votes are needed to defeat a filibuster and move to a final vote on passage. Though only recently introduced, it’s already explicitly clear that what Democrats may have in urgency, Senate Republicans double in contempt; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asserted that “states are not engaging in efforts to suppress voters, whatsoever,” and Utah Senator Mike Lee recently told Fox & Friends that the bill seemed to be written by “the Devil himself.”
Over Zoom, BAZAAR.com speaks with Gallagher and Garcia about the group’s conception, how they intend to overcome Senate Republicans and the filibuster, and why H.R. 1 is so important.
You both have immense organizing experience. Where did the idea behind Un-PAC come from?
Shana Gallagher: I do this work full time, because I was a student organizer myself all four years of college. The issue that I organized around was fossil fuel divestment and, more broadly, action on climate change. I learned the hard way through those years of organizing that we will not pass meaningful climate policy until we pass meaningful democracy reform and break the stranglehold that the fossil fuel lobby has had over our politicians for entire lifetimes. When we first started having conversations with this group about how can we continue the work we started on the campaign, I proposed that our issue would be getting young people to connect the dots between the issues they care about and getting big money out of politics. You can draw every single issue that our generation cares about back to our broken democracy.
There’s already so much momentum around this legislation (H.R. 1) and we don’t take credit for that. But we do take credit for being the only organization that is specifically activating students and young people to demand democracy reform.
Joseline Garcia: I started organizing in high school, because I was seeing things in my own personal experiences or my loved ones’ and community members’ that just didn’t make sense to me—things like the criminal justice system and immigration.
As Shana said, oftentimes, students and young people know that things are not working, they know that they’re wrong. But they’re not given that institutional knowledge to actually connect the dots as to why it’s happening. I’m 26 years old now. I’ve marched, gotten arrested, lobbied, created policy, and fundraised, so I’ve taken many different approaches to this work. Sometimes I would win campaigns, but many times I would lose, and the scary part is that when we lose these campaigns, real people suffer the consequences. I was beginning to get frustrated saying, like, “What are we doing wrong?” And the reality is, because the way everything is set up right now, young people and communities unless you’re in the 1 percent, you’re likely going to lose.
You can draw every single issue that our generation cares about back to our broken democracy.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that many Americans aren’t even familiar with H.R. 1, which is not only quite dense but only recently introduced. To put it simply, why is the advancement of H.R. 1 so crucial?
SG: The long and short of the bill is that it would get big money out of politics and make it easier to vote. Those two things would dramatically shift power in this country more than any piece of legislation that young people have seen in our lifetimes. In terms of making it easier to vote, it would mandate things like same-day and automatic voter registration in all 50 states, anyone can vote by mail whenever they want to in any state, and re-enfranchise all former felons. It would also get rid of gerrymandering in all 50 states and introduce public financing of elections, meaning that you don’t need to be a millionaire or know a bunch of millionaires to run for office.
JG: To expand on one of Shana’s points, all of the crises we are currently witnessing right now, and all that we have seen in the past years regardless of your political alliances, are all going to be connected to this bill. In order to actually see some real change come about in the next couple of years, we need to process this bill.
Un-PAC is making concerted efforts to engage with student organizers of all sides of the political spectrum, from conservative to moderate to progressive, et cetera. What was the thought process behind that?
SG: We feel strongly that this is truly a matter of generational warfare, because we’re facing, as a generation, a future that is untenable. The crises that Joseline just mentioned include student debt, climate change, the many manifestations of systemic racism, access to health care, the current job market, et cetera. There are so many things that are keeping young people from living our fullest lives and moving into our full potential, and those things are a result of a very broken democracy. We believe that one of the many ways the status quo that serves corporations and the ultra-wealthy is maintained in this country is by pitting us against each other. The real divide in this country is not the other side. It’s top versus bottom.
As of now, in which states does Un-PAC have a presence? Where do you hope to be in the next year?
JG: We have about 50 student organizers hired at the moment, and our goal is to have 100. We’re being very intentional about actually paying our student organizers and not just having them as volunteers. One reason why we’ve monetized that aspect of our strategy is that these are young people who do very important work. We believe that you should be paid for the labor that you do. Secondly, oftentimes, when it comes to getting involved in issues that impact you, working-class, young people and students, but also Black and Brown young people are often not at the forefront of the issues directly impacting them, because they don’t have the capacity to be able to volunteer.
SG: We’re focusing on, and are in, specific places for strategic reasons. The primary reason being that the biggest obstacle to this legislation passing is the filibuster. Already, we have thirteen organizers in West Virginia, seven in Arizona, one in D.C., two in Florida, three in Wisconsin, four in Ohio, three in Maine, two in Michigan, one in Minnesota, five in North Carolina, one in Pennsylvania, one in Texas, one in Utah, and four in Virginia. We intend to overcome the filibuster, which is likely going to be the reason this legislation is slowed down temporarily in the Senate. There are two senators who so far have said they are not open to filibuster reform. Those senators are Senator Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona. That’s why we’re focusing in those places and building capacity to be able to demonstrate to those legislators that they don’t have a choice but to pass this legislation, whatever that takes.
The long and short of the bill is that it would get big money out of politics and make it easier to vote.
Given the filibuster and the strong, visible opposition to this bill by certain Republicans already, there is a real possibility that H.R. 1 dies in the Senate. What do both realities—advancing the bill and not advancing the bill—mean for Un-PAC?
JG: At this point, I think we’re just focused on ensuring it passes. I feel like the time is very undetermined, and while there are rumors, we don’t know what that reality looks like right now. There are rumors, but again, we don’t know what that looks like in reality. But the most defining thing for Un-PAC at the moment is getting the bill passed, investing in resources, and for students and young people to be taken seriously as a constituency when it has to do with democracy reform and elections in general.
SG: We’re really not considering the latter to be an option, because we think it’s existential, but if it doesn’t, we would then need to refocus our attention and pivot towards the 2022 midterms. There are plenty of senators who are up for reelection and who the margin of victory could either be made or broken by young people in those states. We intend to continue empowering young people to play an active role in their political process and to be able to take action on the root of all of the problems that they care about, which is making our government work for everyone, not just the wealthy few millionaires and billionaires, as Bernie would say.
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