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 moved that world a step closer to reality.
The public financing system Sarbanes envisions passed the House as part of a sweeping campaign and voting-access package he’s worked on for the better part of 15 years.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol breach and an unprecedented assault on the integrity of the 2020 election, Democratic congressional leaders have made passing it their top priority.
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 senator Paul Sarbanes.
A similar version of the bill was approved by the Democratic-majority House in 2019 but died in the Republican-controlled Senate.
With Democrats now controlling 50 Senate seats and the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Harris, some liberal lawmakers are pushing to get H.R. 1 through that chamber without a single Republican vote — a scenario that would require ditching the filibuster.
“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.
Sarbanes, a lawyer who worked for the state Education Department before running for Congress, said he became interested in campaign-finance issues soon after taking office, when he saw gun-control and climate-change legislation stymied by opposing lobbyists and fat checks from special-interest groups.
Then came the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010 — “unleashing super PACS on our politics,” he said.
“What it did was it kind of woke up the public to the role that big money was having,” Sarbanes said.
He began experimenting with his own campaign finances in the 2012 cycle. In his gerrymandered central Maryland district, he didn’t have much to lose. “The idea was to pilot by my own design, in my own district, a set of incentives that would track with or mimic what a small-donor matching system might look like,” he said.
A growing number of states and localities — including Maryland, the District and Montgomery County — have adopted public matching-fund systems in recent years, although theirs use taxpayer money.
But no such system exists for congressional candidates.
So Sarbanes improvised. He found himself hosting more in-district events to reach voters, including in poorer neighborhoods whose residents would not be targeted by most politicians. But Sarbanes didn’t want $5,000 from them, only $5.
“The impact it had on my own behavior taught me a lot about the virtues of a system like this,” he said.
His breakthrough moment, he said, came in the Glen Burnie shopping mall parking lot that day in 2014, when he convinced the skeptical woman to give him $5. There was something more rewarding about it, he recalled, than any check from a lobbyist could have been.
“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.”