Sarbanes Leads Effort as Sweeping Voting Rights Package Passes U.S. House

U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks as other House Democrats listen during a news conference on the For the People Act at the east front of the U.S. Capitol late Wednesday night. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

The U.S. House passed sweeping voting rights, redistricting, campaign finance and ethics reform, late Wednesday night along party lines in a 220 to 210 vote, but the historic package will face an uphill battle in the Senate as no Republicans currently support the bill.

Even though Democrats control Congress and the White House, their slim majority in a 50-50 Senate is not enough to enact into law a massive package that tackles dark money in campaigns, voter suppression and election security that requires 60 votes rather than a simple majority. The push to end or reform the Senate filibuster is growing among Democrats who are aiming to get the package on President Joe Biden’s desk in the hopes that some of those changes can be enacted before midterm and gubernatorial races in 2022.

“I’m not optimistic on the Senate side,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the architect of the bill said during a Tuesday press conference, arguing that with the filibuster in place it’s unlikely that 10 Senate Republicans would vote on the bill.

However, Sarbanes said he’s optimistic that Senate Democrats can find a way around the filibuster and pass the bill with a simple majority.

“I will say that I’m attracted to the argument that you’re hearing increasingly made, which is that when it comes to something as fundamental as restoring majority rule in America, which is, I think, what H.R. 1 is seeking to do, it would be jarring and incongruous to subject that reform to a supermajority requirement,” he said.

Republicans have launched attacks on the nearly 800 page legislative package, arguing that the federal government is overreaching by mandating how states carry out elections and that the country needs strict voter identification laws.

During the House floor debate, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) said that the bill compromises the rights of states to make their own voting laws.

“This bill will weaken what many states are doing to improve election security,” he said.

The package aims to increase voter turnout by restoring voting rights to those with a felony record, expanding early voting and same-day voter registration, getting rid of ID requirements and requiring states to set up automatic voter registration for eligible voters for federal elections. The Biden administration is supportive of the bill.

“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 administration said in a statement.

With historic levels of voting in the 2020 presidential election, many Republican controlled state legislatures have introduced strict voter ID laws, a trend that concerns Democrats.

“Everything is at stake,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cali.) said during a Wednesday press conference ahead of the vote on the bill.

There are currently more than 33 states that have introduced 165 bills to tighten voting requirements, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. The center also found that 37 states have “introduced, pre-filed or carried over 541 bills” that would expand voting rights.

Legislation to limit early voting and require ID to cast an absentee ballot passed the Georgia House earlier this week and is headed to the state Senate. Early voting, mail-in voting and absentee ballots were crucial for people across the state to vote safely during a pandemic.

Georgia Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both Democrats who won historic Senate runoff races, denounced the move and called the laws voter suppression tactics. The state saw historic levels of voter turnout and Biden won the state by nearly 12,000 votes.

“Voter suppression is one of the most urgent issues confronting our country and I’m going to be doing everything I can as a United States senator to push back against this trend and make sure that people don’t lose their voice in our own democracy,” Warnock told a group of reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Sarbanes also argued that the package would help restore faith in democracy for Americans after baseless conspiracy theories of voter fraud and election irregularities were spread by the former president and many Republicans. Multiple reports from the Department of Justice and FBI found that last year’s elections were secure and there was no evidence of voter fraud.

“This is not controversial,” Sarbanes said about the bill. “We’re just trying to create some baseline, universal standards so people can get to the ballot box.”

Republicans have also made false statements that the bill uses taxpayer money to fund campaigns.

Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who called the bill “a travesty for all Americans,” said on the House floor that his constituents don’t want their taxes to go toward funding political campaigns. The bill does not use taxpayer money to fund campaigns

A section of the bill sets up a federal public financing program for people running for Congress, which uses money from criminal and civil penalties and settlements from corporations, corporate officers or tax code violators in the top income brackets, to match small donations.

New York City has this small donor matching system, which helps candidates for state elections raise money from smaller donations rather than having to rely on big donors and super PACS. So if a small donor gives a candidate $200, the public fund would match that donation at a 6-1 ratio, giving the candidate $1,200.

Sarbanes said this program was included in the bill in the hopes that it allows people from different financial backgrounds to run for office.

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This story has been updated to more accurately reflected Rep. Sarbanes’ view of the bill’s prospects in the Senate.

Ariana Figueroa
Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance. Before joining States Newsroom, Ariana covered public health and chemical policy on Capitol Hill for E&E News. As a Florida native, she's worked for the Miami Herald and her hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times. Her work has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and NPR. She is a graduate of the University of Florida.