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Election reform: Judge Sarbanes’ proposal on merit, not partisan advantage | COMMENTARY

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Democratic Caucus gather to address reporters on H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. House Democrats subsequently passed the sweeping elections and ethics bill, offering it up as a powerful counterweight to voting rights restrictions advancing in Republican-controlled statehouses. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Democratic Caucus gather to address reporters on H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. House Democrats subsequently passed the sweeping elections and ethics bill, offering it up as a powerful counterweight to voting rights restrictions advancing in Republican-controlled statehouses. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

There has always something essentially quixotic in Rep. John Sarbanes’ “For The People Act,” its title as idealistic as anything found on its nearly 800 pages of content. In sum, what H.R.1 attempts to do is fix much of what is broken in this nation’s election system, chiefly by making voting more accessible, ending partisan redistricting, raising ethical standards, and exposing and reducing the influence of big money in politics.

Americans should be celebrating its passage in the U.S. House of Representatives late Wednesday and giving thanks to the 58-year-old Maryland Democrat, the eldest son of the late Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who has made this worthy cause a personal crusade. Don Quixote may have tilted at windmills, but John Sarbanes went after something real and far more daunting: a political system that runs on money and disenfranchises far too many Americans.

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Yet, this remarkable achievement has, unfortunately, if predictably, fallen into partisan tooth gnashing and gross over-simplification. Republicans have reduced these sweeping reforms to one unifying idea — that it’s a reckless power grab by Democrats. And they have done so by returning to the same prevarications about the last election that have been completely and utterly disproved, yet fueled an assault on the U.S. Capitol just two months ago that tested the very foundations of this democracy. Incredibly, just hours after the commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard testified in the Senate about the horrors of that day and the delay in Pentagon approval of a military response — and even as Capitol Police were still warning the public of yet another such potential plot on Thursday ― Republican House members were blindly returning to the same old false rhetoric about rampant election fraud, rejecting H.R. 1 in a near complete party-line vote.

Like most political theater, there was no surprise here. For years, Republicans have followed a fairly conventional political wisdom that they do best in elections with the lowest participation rates. Nonwhites, younger and educated adults? They tend to vote Democratic. And, indeed, overall, more Americans identify as Democrats than they do as Republicans (33% to 29%, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey). So Democrats see advantage in higher voter turnout. But in this case, they also happen to be correct. There is an undeniable public good in removing barriers to voting and establishing national voting rights standards. No-excuse mail voting, early voting, automatic voter registration, returning rights to felons who have served their time, these have broad societal benefits. And, as the last election demonstrated (and was confirmed by dozens of legal challenges), they do not give rise to rampant voter fraud.

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Marylanders understand this better than most. With the notable exception of non-partisan redistricting, many of these reforms have already been successfully adopted here. And H.R. 1 gives the best path forward on redistricting, removing the power to gerrymander from all state legislatures whether they are controlled by Democrats, as is the case in Maryland, or by Republicans who claim majorities in most.

The sad reality is that after passing in the Democratically controlled House, the legislation’s chances in the evenly-divided Senate, where matters of consequence face a 60-vote threshold because of the filibuster rule, are between slim and none. At least, they are if red state Americans don’t get wise and start questioning why GOP senators are so unanimously against more people voting or tracking “dark money” contributions or requiring presidential candidates to release their federal tax returns. Polls show all these measures have broad support from the public. To whom do Republican lawmakers answer? To their constituents or to deep-pocketed special interest groups or fellow career politicians who might be disadvantaged by ethics reforms?

Granted, democracy is difficult. Politics are tough. But if Republicans are going to continue to look at the last election as some kind of scandal because so many more Americans were able to participate or, worse, make outrageous and false claims about fraudulent voting schemes (the kind that some people take seriously enough to stage an assault on our most sacred temple to democracy), they are going to encounter a lot worse problems than how their own congressional districts are drawn. Mr. Sarbanes may not defeat any ferocious giants on this day, but perhaps he will inspire others to take up the worthy cause of voting rights. They are certainly plenty of state houses where these essential democratic ideas are under attack from those who would benefit from turning back the clock and returning (or retaining) power among the privileged.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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