WASHINGTON — John Sarbanes did not go to Congress to write a bill that could be the biggest overhaul of the U.S. election law in decades.
The Maryland Democrat, whose 3rd District stretches from Annapolis to Towson, has focused much of his time in Congress on issues he cares about like climate change, gun violence and fair taxes. But the work was often affected by lobbyists and political action committees.
”From the first moment I arrived here in Washington almost 15 years ago now, it became clear to me that the influence of money on how Washington works was a problem,” Sarbanes said. “And it was blocking progress on a lot of the issues I care about.”
Sarbanes said he wanted to get to the root of the lobbyist problem he saw.
The result is H.R. 1, also known as “The For the People Bill.” The 791-page bill focuses on campaign finance and election reform. It would touch virtually every aspect of the electoral process — striking down hurdles to voting erected in the name of election security, curbing partisan gerrymandering and curtailing the influence of big money in politics.
Congress begins debate on the measure this week. Every Democrat in the House has signed on as a co-sponsor, and this week President Joe Biden’s administration announced its support.
“In the wake of an unprecedented assault on our democracy, a never before seen effort to ignore, undermine, and undo the will of the people, and a newly aggressive attack on voting rights taking place right now all across the country, this landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections and to repair and strengthen American democracy,” the White House statement reads.
Republicans see the bill as threats that would both limit the power of states to conduct elections and ultimately benefit Democrats, notably with higher turnout among minority voters.
“This is now a base issue,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and Trump administration official in the Department of Homeland Security who is leading a conservative coalition opposed to the bill. “Democratic leadership is willing to sacrifice their own members to pass radical legislation. They are cannon fodder that Nancy Pelosi doesn’t care about.”
Cuccinelli is overseeing a $5 million campaign aimed at pressuring Senate Democrats to oppose the bill.
Progressive groups such as Public Citizen and Common Cause, the Communication Workers of America and the pro-gun-control Brady PAC are waging campaigns too, spending $1.3 million to press 18 Democratic lawmakers from districts divided among Republican and Democratic voters, to continue supporting the measure. They all voted for the bill when it first passed two years ago.
Despite staunch GOP opposition, the bill is all but certain to pass the House when it’s scheduled for a floor vote Wednesday. But challenges lie ahead in the Senate, split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.
On some legislation, it takes only 51 votes to pass, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. On a deeply divisive bill like this one, they would need 60 votes under the Senate’s rules to overcome a Republican filibuster — a tally they are unlikely to reach.
Some have discussed options like lowering the threshold to break a filibuster or creating a workaround that would allow some legislation to be exempt. Democratic congressional aides say the conversations are fluid but underway.
The bill was an object of intense focus at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, over the weekend, a gathering where Trump’s lies about mass election fraud took center stage.
Trump and his allies have made false claims that the 2020 election was marred by widespread voter fraud. But dozens of legal challenges they put forth were dismissed, including by the Supreme Court.
In a speech Sunday, Trump branded the bill as “a disaster” and a “monster” that “cannot be allowed to pass.”
“The anti-democratic forces in the Republican Party have focused their energy on peddling unwarranted and expensive voter restriction measures,” said Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her 2018 Georgia bid to become the first Black female governor in U.S. history. “We all have a right to take our seat at the table and our place at the ballot box.”
With control of Congress and the fate of Biden’s legislative agenda in the balance, the bill is seen as a top Democratic priority. Citing Congress’ constitutional authority over federal elections, Democrats say national rules are needed to make voting more uniform, accessible and fair.
The bill would mandate early voting, same-day registration and other long-sought changes that Republicans reject.
Another change included in the bill will allow six-to-one matches on donations up to $200. The matches will be paid by surcharges from settlements the government enters with corporate companies. Future presidents would be obligated to disclose their tax returns, which former President Donald Trump refused to do.
“So in a sense, what we’re saying is bad actors who betrayed and broken the public trust are going to help underwrite a system that can begin to restore public trust,” Sarbanes said. “By giving, again, everyday Americans a sense that they’re the ones that call the shots and own the system.”
The bill would also implement automatic voter registration, making it so people opt-out instead of into registering, Sarbanes said.
And the measure would lead to the creation of an apolitical commission to write congressional district lines, with the aim to get rid of gerrymandering, an effect of the bill that would be felt in Maryland.
Sarbanes own district is considered one of the most gerrymandered in the state, compared by some to a “broken-winged pterodactyl.” It includes parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties as well as portions of Baltimore City.
Sarbanes says the bill is meant to empower people.
Maryland Policy & Politics
“So what this bill offers us is a way of pushing back on that influence that money has on policy and making sure your priorities are the ones that are at the top of the list,” he said.
All House Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors to the bill. The state’s lone Republican, Andy Harris, has not.
Sarbanes offers a simple explanation to opponents in his home state.
“I would say to them, if you get frustrated because you feel like the United States and Maryland and Anne Arundel County should be the gold standard on what it means to register and vote, then you should support this bill because it’s going to really clear the decks and make sure that it’s easy to register and vote everywhere in America.”
Many in the party remain hopeful, but the window to pass legislation before the 2022 midterms is closing.
“We may not get the opportunity to make this change again for many, many decades,” Sarbanes said. “Shame on us if we don’t get this done.”
Associated Press writers Brian Slodysko and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.