Common Cause: For the People Act Offers Tried and True Election Reforms

For the People Act
U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks at the US Capitol during a news conference in early March on the For the People Act. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pass a new law, the For the People Act, that secures our elections, protects our freedom to vote, gets big money and special interests out of politics, and cleans up government. The For the People Act, introduced as H.R. 1 and S. 1 to indicate its high priority, is the most transformative pro-democracy bill introduced in Congress since the Watergate era. It is the bold action that Americans want and deserve, and Congressman John Sarbanes has been championing this comprehensive effort through Congress. 

Throughout his public service, Rep. Sarbanes has been a leader to help ensure that other states have many of the same reforms that Maryland has been passing. As the chair of the House Democracy Reform Task Force, Congressman Sarbanes has assembled the For the People Act by talking with voters about how government can work better for them, spending hundreds of hours listening to experts and gathering the best ideas from colleagues, and examining best practices from states and localities. Provisions in H.R. 1 are tried and true reforms that have passed in many red, purple, and blue states.

As some states try to create barriers to voting and make it harder for their citizens, particularly Black and Brown residents, to vote, Maryland is moving in the opposite direction and is helping to amplify the voices of everyday Marylanders. In the last few years, Maryland has expanded voting rights by passing automatic and same-day voter registration, key reforms that have helped tens of thousands of Marylanders register to vote. With the support of Congressman Sarbanes and Common Cause Maryland, localities throughout Maryland have passed citizen-funded elections systems to amplify the voices of everyday Marylanders, including Baltimore City, and Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Howard counties. And now the General Assembly has passed the Maryland Fair Elections Act to strengthen the gubernatorial Fair Campaign Financing Fund, which Gov. Larry Hogan used in his first election, and we urge him to sign this bill into law.

Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

These citizen-funded election programs, a key part of the For the People Act that Congressman Sarbanes has championed, incentivize small donors and help get big money out of politics. Small donor systems ensure candidates and our elected representatives prioritize the needs of everyday voters over those of big donors. Instead of candidates relying on wealthy donors, lobbyists and special interests to fund their campaigns, small donors who contribute $10, $20 or $50 will have their donations amplified by matching funds and can be competitive with the big donors. As a result, nurses, firefighters and teachers can become the “big donors” and have their voices amplified.

Citizen-funded election programs like the one in the For the People Act are also an important racial justice and equity reform. Research shows that over 90% of donors in federal elections are White, a group whose policy priorities are vastly different from those of people of color and young people. Citizen-funded elections break down barriers and allow women and people of color to run for office without having to rely on a system of mostly wealthy White donors. Citizen-funded elections in Connecticut, New York City and elsewhere have proven to increase both the donor and candidate pool among people of color and women, resulting in a more equitable representation of who runs for office and who funds campaigns. Citizen-funded candidates who win elections govern differently, focusing on the needs of their constituents and the communities they live in, not the demands of special interests. 

Citizen-funded elections and the many other important reforms in the For the People Act are one step closer to becoming law after the U.S. House passed H.R. 1 in March.

In addition to Congressman Sarbanes championing this legislation, we also appreciate the continued leadership on the For the People Act from Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Rep. Jamie Raskin and the entire Maryland congressional delegation, all of which supports the bill, except Rep. Andy Harris. 

Since entering Congress, Rep. Sarbanes has recognized the dangerous role of big money in politics and has worked tirelessly to change the status quo to put “we the people” in charge of government. On behalf of our 1.5 million members, we will continue to work “in common cause” with Congressman Sarbanes to get the For the People Act through the Senate and to President Biden’s desk so all Americans, regardless of race, ZIP code or the size of our wallets, can have our voices heard.

–JOANNE ANTOINE AND KAREN HOBERT FLYNN

The writers are, respectively, executive director of Common Cause Maryland and president of Common Cause.