Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings took questions at a town hall meeting on election reform. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun video)
With a Democratic-led House of Representatives in place, voting rights and other anti-corruption measures are very much on Alan Cohen’s mind. That explains why he trekked down to the War Memorial building at 10:30 a.m. Saturday morning to hear what two congressmen from the newly installed majority had to say.
“I’ve heard a lot about HR 1, and I’m excited about the whole idea,” said Cohen, a 61-year-old communications and outreach consultant living near Roland Park, of the first House bill introduced in the 116th Congress. “I’m really outraged that it’s so hard for people to vote in some states. I believe there should be equal voting across all states.”
Tagged the “For The People Act,” the bill, pushed by many Democrats during last year’s election campaigns, offers changes that would affect voting, political money, redistricting and ethics. And there to talk about it was the congressman who introduced it, John Sarbanes, along with Elijah Cummings, the new chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Rep. John Sarbanes and other House Democrats released plans for their first bill of the new, Democratic-controlled U.S. House – a political reform measure they say would “drain the swamp” in a way that Republican President Donald Trump has not. It contains ethics and campaign finance reform.
The meeting was organized by Indivisible Baltimore, a volunteer group “dedicated to protecting progressive values during the Trump administration,” according to forms left on seats that audience members were asked to fill out. Members of Indivisible Baltimore and Indivisible Howard County stood outside the building, holding printed blue-and-white signs that read, “Whose House? Our House.”
The congressmen were joined by Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore NAACP, who summed up the gathering’s prevailing mood by saying that voting rights and efforts to curb the effect of big money in elections were “under siege from the Trump administration.” Many in the crowd of 200 or so nodded in agreement; some applauded.
The legislation is described in its introduction as “a bill to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants.”
Among its provisions, the bill would make voter registration easier by mandating same-day registration and at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections. It would increase matching funds for House candidates who rely on small-money donations, theoretically lessening the influence of big-money donors. It would mandate that candidates for president and vice president release their tax returns. It would take the power to draw congressional districts away from the states and give it to independent commissions.
Both congressmen — much to the apparent satisfaction of Cohen and most of the people in attendance, who applauded their remarks frequently — took shots at the Trump administration. Sarbanes referred to the proposed legislation as a way to deflect “the raging torrent of chaos that comes at us every day from this White House.”
If Democrats win control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November, Elijah Cummings is in line to ascend to the chairmanship of a committee with the authority — so far untapped — to demand documents related to Donald Trump’s personal finances and policies, as well as possible agency abuses.
Cummings, who received a sustained ovation when he was introduced at the beginning of the meeting, said one of the main challenges the current Congress faces is restoring people’s faith in the electoral process.
“We’ve got to lift up the morale of Americans,” he said, “to realize that this [democracy] works.”
After about an hour, and following remarks from Cummings, Sarbanes and Little, the floor was opened to questions; about 30 people lined up behind a microphone in the middle of the room, asking questions that touched on HR 1 and other concerns. No one, curiously, asked about the partial government shutdown, now in its third week, or President Trump’s demand for a wall along the Mexican border.
Fewer than a dozen attendees, however, got the chance to speak, as the meeting was scheduled to adjourn at noon.
Rafael Cabrero, a 45-year-old Brooklyn resident who works as a customer rep for a health care provider, stood in line to ask two questions: whether the congressmen would support abolishing the Electoral College, and whether they would support increasing the size of the House of Representatives, so the legislative body could more accurately reflect the country’s changing demographics. He never made it to the mic.
“I knew what to expect — this is not my first rodeo,” a smiling Cabrero said as the meeting drew to a close. Meetings like this are still a good idea, he added. “They’re still our congressmen, and it’s good to hear, ‘This is what we are doing, this is what we can do, this is what we cannot do.’ I like that — it’s good to see their faces, that they’re not somebody nebulous down in Washington, D.C.”
Linda Dorsey-Walker, who got to speak briefly with Sarbanes about a bill she has long supported that offers some debt relief to those in certain public-service jobs, also appreciated the idea behind the meeting.
“It serves a purpose, always, to give individuals an opportunity to voice their concerns,” she said. “A congressperson has to be able to cross the line and make everyone feel that they’re being listened to and are held important.”
Yaw Owusu-Boaitey, a 19-year-old student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, backed that idea up.