Congressional Democrats are launching a concerted push on behalf of an ambitious voting rights and campaign reform bill sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland that backers say is urgently needed because voter access is being threatened around the country.
It has not attracted critical Republican support, but has become a signature measure for Democrats eager to protect voting rights heading into the 2022 midterm congressional elections. They also want to showcase their efforts to limit the role of big money in campaigns, tighten ethics rules for members of Congress, and end the drawing of sharply partisan U.S. House districts.
Among the Democrats promoting the bill are former President Barack Obama, who calls it “so important” to protecting democracy. Eric Holder, U.S. attorney general in the Obama administration, says it is needed to combat a recent “wave of [state-level] voter suppression bills, the likes of which we have not seen since the Jim Crow era.”
“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” Sarbanes said Thursday in an interview. “It meets a lot of the challenges we’re facing right now.”
The Senate Rules Committee is to take up the measure Tuesday after it passed the House in March. Maryland’s seven Democratic representatives voted for it, while Republican Rep. Andy Harris was opposed.
Florida on Thursday became the latest state to enact stricter voting requirements. A bill signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis limits the use of ballot drop boxes and adds ID requirements to get a mail-in ballot. Supporters say the moves will safeguard elections from fraud, but voting rights advocates call them voter suppression.
In Maryland, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly went the other direction, approving changes this year — such as allowing people to opt in to a permanent vote-by-mail list — to make voting easier. But many other states, including Ohio and Texas, are considering a range of voting restrictions.
In such a climate, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume said he views Sarbanes’ “For the People Act” as an important civil rights bill that would help keep many voters from being disenfranchised.
“This could not have found a better time, given what many Republican state legislatures are doing across the country,” said Mfume, who represents parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.
The bill 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.
The 791-page act is actually a collection of reform bills introduced in previous congressional sessions, now stitched into a single package. Among those who contributed sections — besides Sarbanes, the principal sponsor — are Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and the late Reps. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore and John Lewis of Georgia, all Democrats.
The measure includes provisions that would require political advocacy groups to disclose donors and presidential candidates to release tax returns.
It also would add more election security and establish a system in which every $100 in small donations to congressional campaigns would be matched with $600 in public financing.
And it would set standards for drawing congressional districts to prevent gerrymandering, which is when districts are created to benefit or disadvantage a political party.
“This is vital to protect our democracy,” Van Hollen said of the bill, which he and Sarbanes hope Congress will decide on before the August recess.
“You want to keep this moving. It’s very easy for momentum to slow,” Sarbanes said.
The legislation is co-sponsored by 49 Senate Democrats — all but West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who hasn’t ruled out voting for it.
Republicans say the legislation would overstep congressional authority. The bill amounts to “a partisan assault on elections” that would “centralize control of elections in all 50 states in Washington Democrats’ hands,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted after the House passed it.
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 bill’s supporters say they are exploring making it procedurally harder to filibuster, or to make the argument that it merits a filibuster exemption on the grounds that voting and campaign finance procedures are fundamental to democracy.
Any such modification would require at least 50 votes. Manchin, who is considered by fellow Democrats as a crucial swing vote, did not reply to a question from The Baltimore Sun about filibusters sent to his spokeswoman.
The spokeswoman, Sam Runyon, sent a statement in which Manchin expressed support for expanded early voting and several other provisions in the bill, but said he would oppose “pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis.”
Sarbanes said he and other Democrats won’t break the package into pieces, not even to try to salvage some elements.
“It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not going to get you Republicans,” he said. “It’s not going to solve your problem in terms of getting to 60 votes.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
Sarbanes said the Democrats believe the public broadly favors the bill’s proposals, and that the party plans to try to leverage that support to sway opponents.
Sarbanes, a lawyer, represents portions of Baltimore City and of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties. The congressman said he was influenced by his father, whom he called “a reformer.”
The former senator, who died in December, aimed to protect investors by sponsoring the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. It established an independent oversight board to rein in accounting abuses.
“I would say this bill is of equal or perhaps greater significance,” said American University department of government chair David Lublin, referring to the younger Sarbanes’ measure. “It certainly is a very major piece of legislation. The Democrats have rolled every single aspect of political reform into it.”
Former Maryland congressman Tom McMillen of Maryland said the bill has populist appeal. “It’s not a question of if it will pass,” the Democrat said, but rather when. Such broad measures “sometimes take time” to win approval, he said.
In the 1990s, then-U. S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, traveled the country to promote campaign finance reform with then-U. S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin. Congress passed their bill in 2002, although the U.S. Supreme Court later struck down a critical section.
“We would love to find a John McCain on the other side of the aisle,” John Sarbanes said.