Maine’s Angus King pushes for voting rights reform in U.S. Senate

Published: Oct. 20, 2021 at 6:47 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (WMTW) - Maine Senator Angus King is advocating for the U.S. Senate to move forward on a major voting rights bill that hit a predictable stumbling block on Wednesday.

King was among the 49 Democrats and Independents who voted in favor of starting floor debate on the Freedom to Vote Act, which would set election standards for all 50 states. But the bill was set aside when 50 Republicans unified to block its consideration.

The bill would require states to adopt what reformers consider best election practices:

  • Early voting at least two weeks before Election Day, including nights and weekends.
  • The option to vote absentee-by-mail for any reason and request your ballot online without more stringent ID requirements than are required in-person.
  • Same-day voter registration and automatic registration when citizens turn 18, unless they opt-out.
  • Making Election Day a holiday.

In an interview with WMTW before the Senate convened, King said, “This isn’t a takeover of state elections. This is just setting the floor, saying, ‘You know, there are certain minimum standards.’ There should be 15 days of early voting and the kinds of things that we have in Maine. I mean, ironically, in Maine we have no voter ID, we have same-day registration, we have absentee voting, we have drop boxes, and you know what, we have no fraud either.”

The bill also seeks to outlaw voter suppression tactics:

  • Ending overly partisan redrawing of election districts, known as gerrymandering.
  • Prohibiting states from purging voter rolls without verifying which registrants are ineligible by checking government-maintained records, banning the failure to vote in an election as a reason removal, and requiring removed voters be notified and how they can contest it.
  • Criminalizing the dissemination of false and misleading information designed to deter eligible voters from casting a ballot.
  • Requires voting lines last no longer than 30 minutes and banning laws that prohibit donations of food or water to voters waiting in line.

“The whole idea is to have it so more people can vote, which I thought was the principle of the thing,” King said. “I think you ought to win elections by having the best ideas and the best candidates, not by restricting who gets to vote.”

In support of the bill, King delivered a 24-minute floor speech Tuesday harkening back to the American Revolution and Civil War.

Addressing campaign finance reform, the bill would initiate a form of public financing to match donations of up to $200 and would require any group that spends more than $10,000 in an election to disclose all donors.

King said the latter provision would eliminate the problem known as “dark money.”

He said, “We have hundreds of millions of dollars being spent in our campaigns in this country without any knowledge of who the people are. You can’t go to a town meeting in Maine with a bag over your head. You know, who’s making the argument is part of the information voters ought to have. All we’re saying is, ‘Disclose who these people are.’”

The bill would not overrule the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which freed individuals and corporations to spend unlimited amounts on elections.

“The Court invited Congress to do disclosure, but we haven’t done it, because of the tender feelings of billionaires, I suppose,” King said. “When you see one of those ads on TV, and it says, ‘Sponsored by Citizens for Greener Grass,’ it would mean more to you if you knew really who was behind that, who was giving that money.”

The Senate bill is a scaled-down version of the For the People Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in March and blocked by Senate Republicans in June.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins and all 49 other Republican senators voted against debating the new bill, depriving Democrats and Independents of the 60 votes needed to proceed.

King said, “What they really object to is they don’t want to be stopped in doing what they’re doing – which is many, many states, they’re passing voter suppression laws that are designed to keep people from voting.”

In a written statement, Collins said, “This legislation represents a vast federal take-over of state elections, which I oppose. This bill would force extensive changes to Maine’s election laws, even though Maine consistently rates as one of the top states in voter participation.”

The Democratic-majority-led congressional voting rights bills are partly in response to former President Donald Trump’s assault on the 2020 general election results, when he lost the White House to President Joe Biden and the national popular vote by seven million votes, or 4.5% of ballots counted.

Since then, 19 Republican-led states have passed 33 laws making it harder to vote, according to a tally by the Brennan Center for Justice, which supports the proposed federal legislation.

King ranked partisan gerrymandering as the worst practice in need of reform.

“People come from these one-party districts, whether it’s Democratic or Republican, and they tend to be in the extreme end of their party, and they tend to come here not willing to compromise, not willing to find middle ground, not willing to listen to the other side, and that’s one of the reasons this place is so polarized,” King said. “If you’re from a district that has 70% Republican or 70% Democratic, the primary is the election, and who votes in the primary but the more activist members of the party, so it literally pushes us apart.”

King noted that 41 votes in the Senate can kill any bill, by capping the majority at 59, because of the senate rule requiring 60 votes to commence or cut off debate.

By his tally, 41 senators might currently represent as little as 24% of the U.S. population.

“24% of the American people can stop something that’s put forward by 76% of the American people,” King said. “That doesn’t correspond with my theory of democracy.”

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