In The News

March 3, 2021

The most explosive battle in decades over access to the voting booth will reach a new crescendo this week, as Republican-controlled states advance an array of measures to restrict the ballot, and the U.S. House of Representatives votes on the federal legislation that represents Democrats’ best chance to stop them. It’s no exaggeration to say that future Americans could view the resolution of this struggle as a turning point in the history of U.S. democracy. The outcome could not only shape the balance of power between the parties, but determine whether that democracy grows more inclusive or exclusionary. To many civil-rights advocates and democracy scholars I’ve spoken with, this new wave of state-level bills constitutes the greatest assault on Americans’ right to vote since the Jim Crow era’s barriers to the ballot.... In Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, and Montana, Republican governors and legislators are moving forward bills that would reduce access to voting by mail, limit early voting, ban ballot drop boxes, inhibit voter-registration drives, and toughen identification requirements—measures inspired by the same discredited claims of election fraud that Donald Trump pushed after his 2020 loss.... As a result, Democrats may have a single realistic opportunity to resist not only these proposals, but also GOP plans to institute severe partisan congressional gerrymanders in many of the same states. That opportunity: using Democrats’ unified control of Washington to establish national election standards—by passing the omnibus election-reform bill known as H.R. 1, which is scheduled for a House vote today, and the new Voting Rights Act, which is expected to come to the floor later this year. Democrats may have only a brief window in which to block these state-level GOP maneuvers.... If Democrats lose their slim majority in either congressional chamber next year, they will lose their ability to pass voting-rights reform. After that, the party could face a debilitating dynamic: Republicans could use their state-level power to continue limiting ballot access, which would make regaining control of the House or the Senate more difficult for Democrats—and thus prevent them from passing future national voting rules that override the exclusionary state laws. “There’s an increasing appreciation,” Democratic Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, H.R. 1’s chief sponsor, told me, that “if we can’t get these changes in place in time for the 2022 midterm election, the efforts that Republicans are taking at the state level to lock in this voter-suppression regime” and maximize their advantage via partisan gerrymanders “will reshape the environment in a way that makes it impossible to get this, or frankly many other things, done.” The outcome in the House for both H.R. 1 and a new VRA isn’t in much doubt. No Democrat voted against either bill when the chamber first passed them in 2019. This year, every House Democrat has already endorsed H.R. 1, ensuring its passage today. Although some Senate observers have questioned whether the moderate Democrat Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, will support H.R. 1’s Senate equivalent, most election-reform advocates I’ve spoken with expect that, in the end, Manchin and every other Senate Democrat will back both voting-rights bills, as they did in the previous Congress.... Senate Republicans are likely to try to kill these bills with a filibuster. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the principal sponsor of H.R. 1’s Senate analogue, has been urging his colleagues to consider ending the filibuster for these bills alone, even if they are unwilling to end it for all legislation.... One White House official, who asked not to be identified while discussing internal strategy, told me that “the president is committed to defending the voting rights of all Americans, and keenly aware of the ongoing threats to those rights....”  Although Democrats first introduced H.R. 1 and the new VRA long before the 2020 campaign, everything that has happened since Election Day has underscored the stakes in this struggle. The GOP’s state-level offensive amounts to an extension of the assault Trump mounted in the courts, in state legislatures, and ultimately through the attack that he inspired against the Capitol. If nothing else, the GOP’s boldness can leave Democrats with little doubt about what they can expect in the years ahead if they do not establish nationwide election standards.... In red states, civil-rights and government-reform groups are struggling to combat these restrictions.... H.R. 1 would reverse many of the restrictive policies advancing in red states.... Against the backdrop of the red-state voting offensive, the fate of H.R. 1 looks like a genuine inflection point.... More and more Democrats, Sarbanes said, are coming to recognize that “this isn’t just about trying to do something now that we can do later. This is about doing something now that we may not get the chance to do again for another 50 years.” Democrats face an unforgiving equation: a fleeting window in which to act, and potentially lasting consequences if they don’t. “If you look at all the stakes that are involved,” Sarbanes continued, “the notion that you would miss this opportunity becomes incomprehensible.”

March 3, 2021

The House approved a sweeping political money, elections, influence and ethics measure Wednesday, but the bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where it will trigger renewed debate over the legislative filibuster.  Championed by Democrats and dubbed HR 1 to symbolize its high priority, the overhaul package passed the House 220-210 in a late-night vote.... The HR 1 measure totaled some 800 pages and included 60 pieces of legislation, according to chief author Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland. It would reshape how congressional candidates may fund their campaigns, set minimum access standards for voting and establish new ethical standards for lobbyists, lawmakers and federal officials.  “HR 1 is designed to restore the voices of Americans who felt left out and locked out for too long,” Sarbanes said Wednesday during a news conference on the steps of the Capitol.... Given its sweeping scope, here are the details on five lesser-known provisions: A hallmark of the package would set out an optional system to finance congressional campaigns with public money. It would provide a 6-to-1 match of small-dollar campaign donations and, supporters say, would reduce the influence of big campaign donors in the political system and provide a way for less affluent candidates, who don’t have networks of big donors, to run for office.... All states would be required to send voters an application to cast their ballots by mail, according to a manager’s amendment to the bill. Proponents say such provisions aim to make voting easier and more accessible, while opponents argue that Democrats are trying to make permanent some of the emergency changes implemented during the coronavirus pandemic....  Provisions in the bill seek to dial back so-called shadow lobbying, the behind-the-scenes guidance that formerly elected officials often make their post-government living on without having to register as a federal lobbyist and disclose who is paying for their knowledge and influence. Anyone who keeps their lobbying activities under 20 percent of their time for a client (and avoids making one contact with a member of Congress or other “covered official”) can remain under the public radar.  HR 1 would take that threshold down to 10 percent. In short, it would expand the scope of activities that require registering as a federal lobbyist.... Supreme Court justices would face a code of conduct in the bill that would institute new transparency and ethics rules.... Finally, included in the manager’s amendment to the bill was a provision making Election Day a public holiday. 

March 3, 2021

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a landmark bill on Wednesday to overhaul U.S. elections amid a pitched partisan battle sparked in part by false claims of fraud in the November election. The bill, H.R. 1, passed 220 to 210 in the House, but it is unlikely to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, as most Republicans oppose it. The bill would make it significantly easier to vote, limit gerrymandering of congressional districts, require third-party groups to reveal secret donors and reform a dysfunctional election watchdog, among other changes.... House Democrats passed a similar bill in 2019, which never came up for a vote in the Senate, which was then controlled by Republicans. While Democrats are now in charge of the upper chamber, they will not be able to reach the 60-vote threshold to defeat a filibuster and do not have the votes on their own side to change Senate rules and pass the bill on a simple majority. The bill’s author, Maryland Representative John Sarbanes, said the legislation would stop Republican efforts to add new voter restrictions, which have long been criticized for targeting minorities. “If we don’t pass it in this session of Congress, the 2022 election is going to be a story of increased voter suppression across the country,” he said. “Republican lawmakers are stampeding toward more obstacles to voting, blocking access to the ballot box in ways that could really create a kind of two-tiered society when it comes to how our democracy operates....” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made elections reform a top priority, designating the bill H.R. 1, and Sarbanes said Senate colleagues have assured him that it’s a priority, but it’s unclear how it will get around the procedural hurdles.... Sarbanes said there are ongoing conversations about other ways to get the bill through the Senate. Though he declined to say what has been discussed, he said he believes the filibuster should be adjusted for issues like elections. “When it comes to passing a bill that’s trying to restore majority rule in America, which I would argue that H.R. 1 is trying to do, it makes sense that passage would come with a simple up-or-down majority vote,” he said.

 

March 3, 2021

In 2018, House Democrats won the majority on a promise that we would refocus the chamber on delivering “For the People.” The centerpiece of that effort was HR 1, the For the People Act, comprehensive legislation to root out corruption in government, increase transparency and accountability, impose higher ethics standards, strengthen voting rights, limit the influence of dark money in our politics, and reform the way we draw the maps for congressional districts to make them fairer.  Within weeks of assuming control, thanks to the leadership of Rep. John Sarbanes and input from across our caucus, we brought HR 1 to the floor and passed it. Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled Senate refused even to consider it and let it die with the 116th Congress. This week, as one of the first actions of the 117th Congress, I am proud to bring HR 1 to the floor again, this time with a Democratic-led Senate and a president in the Oval Office committed to governing For the People. As we seek to return the focus of American government to the people, Democrats will press forward with our reform agenda, which starts with HR 1. With the bill’s key reforms, Congress can renew Americans’ faith that government exists to serve them, elevate their voices, and help them get ahead — by placing the power of government back in their hands.... I was proud to lead the last major legislative reform of our voting rules in 2002, when Congress passed my bill, the Help America Vote Act. Now, it is time to enact HR 1 and take the next steps forward....  Democrats are cognizant that we cannot restore the people’s trust overnight. No single piece of legislation alone will accomplish that. But HR 1 will go a long way toward that aim. This is an effort that unites Democrats and enjoys broad popular support among Americans across the political spectrum. When the House passed this bill in 2019, not a single Republican voted in favor. That was disappointing, and I hope that, this time around, Republicans eager to move forward from the corruption and ethical lapses of the past four years will join us in sending a message that government can and must do better.  When government works — when it is truly “of the people, by the people and for the people” — it can be a powerful tool to help our people attain the justice, opportunity and economic security that enable them to make it in America. As we face the twin crises of a deadly pandemic and its severe economic impact, opening government up and making it more accountable and transparent will help us build back better and stronger by ensuring that all Americans are full participants in this great national effort.  That’s why HR 1 is so critical — and why Congress and the president must do all we can to see it enacted.

March 3, 2021

For years, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) had an ongoing experiment: testing his campaign-finance legislation on his own reelection races. He would set aside hundreds of thousands in high-dollar donations and would not touch it, not until he had raised at least $1,000 in small-dollar contributions from 100 different precincts in his district. Cold-calling donors on Election Day in 2014, he told one skeptical constituent: “In a sense, I’m calling from the future. I’m calling from a time when candidates will have an incentive to reach out to the small donors of the world.” On Wednesday, the House will consider whether to make that world a reality. The public campaign-financing system Sarbanes envisions will go up for a vote as part of a sweeping campaign-finance and voting-access package he’s worked on for the better part of 15 years.... House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Sarbanes the “godfather” of the legislation in a speech on the House floor Tuesday, crediting his “long-term dedication” to advancing democracy. The bill — H.R. 1, the For the People Act — seeks to drastically broaden access to the ballot at a time when GOP state lawmakers are trying to advance more voting restrictions. It would expand early, absentee and mail-in voting, while also enabling automatic voter registration and trying to end partisan gerrymandering. And it seeks to amplify the power of grass-roots donors to counter the influence of big money in politics, through a small-dollar donor matching system. “The stakes could not be higher,” said Sarbanes, a Baltimore native who chairs the Democrats’ Democracy Reform Task Force and is the son of the late Sen. Paul Sarbanes. A similar version of the bill was approved by the Democratic-majority House in 2019, but died in the Republican-controlled Senate.... “We’ve never needed it more than we needed it in this moment, when you look at what’s happening across the country,” Sarbanes said, citing Republican attempts to restrict voting access as well as President Donald Trump’s effort to sow distrust in the U.S. electoral system leading up to the Capitol attack. “We’ve got a piece of legislation that can stop that voter suppression effort in its tracks, broadly expand people’s access to the ballot box . . . and push back against this undue influence that big money has on our politics and the way we govern in America,” Sarbanes said. Under the campaign-finance overhaul included in H.R. 1, candidates would be able to opt into a six-to-one matching system for small-dollar donations. Just like in Sarbanes’s experiment, they would only qualify to unlock the funds if they raise $50,000 from at least 1,000 small-dollar donors first, and agree not to take certain PAC money. The matching funds would be sourced not from taxpayers — as Republican critics have frequently and incorrectly asserted — but from civil settlements or criminal fees the federal government wins against corporate wrongdoers or major tax evaders. In the future Sarbanes envisions, a $50 donation from a donor of modest means would be worth $350 to the candidate.... “I think maybe the future is now,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve reached the point where if we can get a system like this in place, all the incentives can shift, and you’ll see candidates that will finally reach out and build those bridges and connections to everyday Americans who maybe don’t have a ton of money, but they can give something, and they want their voice to be heard.”

March 2, 2021

The turbulent debate over the nation’s elections reached Congress’s doorstep this week, with House Democrats poised to pass sweeping nationwide standards for voter access Wednesday just as Republican lawmakers in dozens of states move to restrict polling access after Donald Trump’s November loss.Meanwhile, state lawmakers are barreling ahead with major rollbacks of early voting, mail voting and other state provisions that Trump and other Republicans oppose, while the Supreme Court on Tuesday heard a challenge to Arizona’s election laws that could further curtail the federal government’s power to police elections.... House leaders anticipate near-unanimous Democratic support — and zero Republican backing — for their bill known as H.R. 1, or the “For the People Act,” that would overhaul elections, campaign finance and government ethics law. Some liberal lawmakers are pushing to ditch Senate filibuster rules to pass it into law without Republican support.... The Democrats’ legislative answer to the Republican effort is a sprawling 791-page bill that establishes national standards for voter access — mandating online registration, voting by mail, at least 15 days of early voting and the restoration of voting rights for released felons. The bill also mandates congressional redistricting be done by independent commissions, requires the disclosure of “dark money” contributions to political groups, and creates a system of public financing for congressional campaigns, among dozens of other provisions.... Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), H.R. 1’s lead author, said Democrats should feel a sense of urgency to bust through any roadblocks given the scale of the Republican effort to curtail voting rights ahead of the 2022 midterms — for which the GOP is also counting on a partisan redistricting effort for an additional House advantage. “It’s important to keep this moving,” he said. “Republicans are absolutely determined to throw as many obstacles up as they possibly can, and exhibit A is Georgia, exhibit B is Pennsylvania, exhibit C is Arizona. And the list goes on and on from there, so the stakes could not be higher.”

March 2, 2021

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.

March 1, 2021

On February 23rd, 2021, Alyssa Milano hosted a special live episode of Sorry Not Sorry with Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District. He’s the lead sponsor of H.R. 1, the “for the people act.” This act corrects so many critical shortcomings and vulnerabilities in our election system, and is one of the most important pieces of legislation in the Congress in a very long time. This is a rebroadcast of that live episode.

Podcast Media Player

February 26, 2021

Stacey Abrams, whose voting rights work helped make Georgia into a swing state, exhorted Congress on Thursday to reject “outright lies” that have historically restricted access to the ballot as Democrats began their push for a sweeping overhaul of election and ethics laws. “A lie cloaked in the seductive appeal of election integrity has weakened access to democracy for millions,” Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race, said during a committee hearing for the bill, which was introduced as H.R. 1 to signal its importance to the party’s agenda. Democrats feel a sense of urgency to enact the legislation ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, when their narrow majorities in the House and Senate will be at risk. The bill, which good-government groups have championed, is advancing against a backdrop of Republican-controlled states seizing on former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen 2020 election to push legislation that would make it more difficult to vote. Democrats argue that voters of color, a key constituency for the party, would be disproportionately affected. It also comes on the cusp of a once-in-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts, a highly partisan affair that is typically controlled by state legislatures. With Republicans controlling the majority of statehouse, the process alone could help the GOP win enough seats to recapture the House. The Democratic bill would instead require that the boundaries be drawn by independent commissions.... Given the closing window to pass legislation before 2022, many in the party remain hopeful it will be signed into law by Biden, whose administration has said the bill is a priority. “We may not get the opportunity to make this change again for many, many decades, so let’s not miss that window,” said John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who is the bill’s lead sponsor. “Shame on us if we don’t get this done.”

February 25, 2021

The reintroduction of a sweeping election reform bill has earned the criticism of Republican lawmakers, but a new survey found that a majority of their party's voters support the legislation. In fact, the Data for Progress poll found H.R. 1—also known as the For the People Act—has broad public support. More than two-thirds of likely voters (68 percent) said they would back the proposal. Just 16 percent said they opposed it. The support also transcended party lines, with 70 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independent or third-party voters and 57 percent of Republican voters expressing approval for the bill....  "The 2020 election underscored the need for comprehensive, structural democracy reform. Americans across the country were forced to overcome rampant voter suppression, gerrymandering and a torrent of special-interest dark money just to exercise their vote and their voice in our democracy," Representative John Sarbanes (D-Md.) said in a statement. Sarbanes, the chair of the House's Democracy Reform Task Force, reintroduced the bill in the 117th Congress. "It shouldn't have to be this way," he said.

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