WASHINGTON – After Democrats seized a majority in the House with a 40-seat swing in the 2018 midterm elections, Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes said the results were a call for election and ethics reform.
The “For the People Act of 2019” is the House Democrats’ bid to enact those reforms.
“We heard loud and clear from the American people that they feel left out and locked out too often from their own democracy,” Sarbanes said during a press conference early last month.
The Democrats’ measure is considered such a priority that it was designated H.R. 1 when it was introduced Jan. 3 at the start of the new session of Congress. Sarbanes, chairman of the Democracy Reform Task Force, is the bill’s sponsor and has 224 Democratic co-sponsors.
The reform bill outlines changes in election laws, ethics rules and campaign finance restrictions.
But while the bill’s passage is almost certain in the Democrat-dominated House, there is little chance the legislation will be well-received in the Republican-controlled Senate.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, took issue with the bill’s aim to make Election Day a federal holiday, calling the measure a “power grab” by Democrats.
And in a Jan. 17th Washington Post op-ed, McConnell called the bill a “naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party.”
Democrats, however, are utilizing the bill as early election ammunition.
“The people will know that this is an option the House has given the Senate of the United States and the president of the United States to take action in support of the American people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said during the press conference announcing the bill.
During the 2016 presidential election, and again during the 2018 midterm elections, both parties complained of election and voter misconduct.
Since his 2016 victory, President Donald Trump has frequently cited his nearly 3 million popular-vote deficit to Hillary Clinton as evidence of widespread voter fraud — although experts have dismissed the charge as baseless. And during last year’s midterms, Democrats took issue with reported ballot-purging in Georgia during the state’s gubernatorial race.
The proposed reform bill would address both of those concerns, requiring paper ballots to curb electronic ballot-tampering, while also allowing citizens to register online and on the day of elections to fix a registration process that Sarbanes likened to an “obstacle course.”
The bill also cracks down on efforts to remove voters from the rolls.
“The first major bill of the 116th Congress is a critical set of reforms which would bring our antiquated election system closer to one in which more people can fully participate,” said Todd Cox, director of policy for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It is imperative that everyone has an equal say in electing the people who will be making life-changing policy decisions about them on a day-to-day basis.”
The House Judiciary Committee held an initial hearing on the bill on Tuesday, which primarily focused on the voting rights changes in the bill. And as was expected, support of the bill was split along party lines.
Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colorado, cited the 2018 elections in which Republicans claimed millions of dead voters appeared on the rolls to boost Democratic numbers as evidence of past voter fraud by Democrats. It’s an issue he claims isn’t addressed in the bill.
“The Democratic Party has a long history of stealing elections in this country,” Buck said. “The Democratic Party relies on corruption and intimidation to win elections.”
To address ethics concerns, the bill would require presidential and vice presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns and business dealings, bar House members from serving on corporate boards and require presidents-elect to have ethics plans for their transition teams to help them abide by conflict-of-interest laws.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, said the ethical issues start in the White House.
“Over the last two years, President Trump set the tone from the top in his administration that behaving ethically and complying with the law is optional,” Cummings said at the bill’s unveiling. “We’re better than that.”
Additionally, the bill would require the disclosure of big donors behind nonprofits participating in elections and also require digital companies to provide databases with advertisement purchases exceeding $500.
“Corporate CEOs and the wealthiest one percent have spent decades rigging the political process to reduce the power of working people,” said Communications Workers of America President Chris Shelton. “The For the People Act is a bold step toward bringing balance to our democracy.”
And while Senate Republicans will likely follow McConnell in his opposition of the legislation, Democrats are hopeful the bill can be a blueprint for future success.
Individual portions of the reform bill could be passed as stand-alone legislation, but Democrats also view the bill as a fulfillment of a campaign promise that helped them regain control of the House.
The measure is expected to come to the House floor in February.
“We are going to do everything we can, every single day to give you your democracy back,” Sarbanes said. “And make sure this truly is a government of, by and for the people.”