Down the street from a West Street wall freshly adorned in the image of late civil rights figure John Lewis, 70 people gathered in Annapolis Saturday to honor his legacy by promoting Democratic legislation in his name that would protect voting rights heading into the 2022 midterm congressional elections.
The Annapolis rally and motorcade was one of 150 cities participating in a “John Lewis Voting Rights Act action event” to push Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It would reinstate a requirement that state legislatures get approval from the Department of Justice to change election laws that limit voting rights.
Participants also promoted “For the People Act,” an electoral reform bill intended to strengthen voting rights and access, enhance campaign finance reform and address government ethics to root out corruption in politics. The lead sponsor is U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, who represents Annapolis as part of Maryland’s 3rd District.
Another bill that would make Washington, D.C., a majority Black city, an official state represented by congressional members.
The Senate Rules Committee is to take up Sarbane’s measure Tuesday after it passed the House in March. Maryland’s seven Democratic representatives voted for it, while Republican Rep. Andy Harris was opposed.
Nearly two dozen Republican state attorneys general wrote to congressional leaders in March, saying the bill “would federalize state elections and impose burdensome costs and regulations on state and local officials.”
With no Republican senators on board, the legislation lacks the 60 votes that would be required to end an expected GOP filibuster.
The “For the People Act” would provide for automatic voter registration, meaning eligible citizens would become registered voters as soon as they provide identifying information to motor vehicle departments or other agencies. It would expand early voting and voting by mail.
Sarbanes told the crowd Saturday that Lewis wrote 300 pages of the 791-page act. The bill is viewed by Democrats as a civil rights bill because it would increase civilian participation in voting and running for office. The act is a collection of reform bills introduced in previous congressional sessions, now stitched into a single package.
Among those who contributed sections — besides Lewis and Sarbanes, the principal sponsor — are Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and the late Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore.
“We’re never going to give in to voter suppression in this country and we’re never going to give up on American democracy,” Sarbanes said.
The proposed legislation is viewed as urgent by supporters as Southern states like Florida and Georgia passed laws creating stricter voting standards and narrower timeframes for absentee ballots to be eligible and early voting available. Supporters say the moves will safeguard elections from fraud, but voting rights advocates call them voter suppression.
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Texas on Friday became the latest Republican-dominated state to advance sweeping new limits on voting, despite no evidence of any problems with last year’s vote. State and federal officials have called the 2020 presidential election the most secure in history.
Sarbanes was joined onstage at The People’s Park on Calvert Street by Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley, who’s running for re-election in November. No Republican or independent candidate has officially announced a challenge against Buckley, a Democrat.
Buckley lambasted the voting laws passed in Texas, Florida and Georgia as an attack on democracy before introducing a citation declaring Annapolis a city that “advances equitable voting rights and justice for people of all races of national origins and ethnicities.”
“Don’t let laws in other states not be our fight too,” Buckley said.
The Transformative Justice Coalition planned the nationwide event on May 8 to honor John Lewis’ march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama advocating for voting rights. The march was held on May 7, 1965, now known “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis suffered a skull fracture that day when state troopers and sheriff deputies descended on the crowd.
The Annapolis event was organized by the Anne Arundel County NAACP branch, the Maryland Council on American-Islamic Relations, the county chapter of Moms Demand Action, the county Caucus of African-American Leaders, Annapolis Pride, the National Pan-Hellenic Council and the United Black Clergy.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.