On Monday, April 8, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D) visited St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where he gave a lecture on political participation, while promoting new legislation put forward by the Democratic house. He then briefly took questions from the audience. The event was heavily attended by both students and members of the community, with barely any seats left open.
The lecture was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democracy as well as the Patuxent Partnership, an organization working to “advance science and technology through speaker programs, forums, and networking,” focusing on “the exchange of ideas, information, and data related to technologies.”
Prior to becoming a senator, Van Hollen served in the House, representing Maryland’s Eighth Congressional district. He was elected to the Senate in 2016, when he ran to replace Barbara Mikulski. He is joined by Senator Ben Cardin (D) in representing Maryland in the Senate.
Van Hollen was introduced by President Tuajuanda C. Jordan, who briefly spoke about how thankful the college was that the senator made time to visit. Dr. Jordan also held a moment of silence for Michael Busch (D), the Maryland Speaker of the House, who passed away only a few short days ago. Busch was the longest serving speaker of the House in history, according to a tweet from Governor Larry Hogan (R).
Van Hollen took the stage to a warm welcome of applause, beginning by explaining that he had planned to talk about college debt, but decided against it, realizing that as students we are all too familiar with this concept. He did quickly elaborate on the need for more Pell Grants, scholarships and federal support, explaining that many students are “behind already because they have to dig themselves out of a big hole,” a comment which garnered many nods and murmurs of agreement from students.
Instead of focusing on the ever increasing levels of debt students are faced with, the senator launched into a discussion of the surrounding area, stating that “Southern Maryland is known for bringing together different parts of this community,” citing the Patuxent River Navy Base and the many local industries.
After a few short minutes Van Hollen pivoted, moving on to promote the “For The People Act” (H.R. 1), the first bill from the new Democratic majority in the House. Van Hollen summarized the legislation as a way to “refresh our democracy, to known down barriers, and to encourage more Americans to participate in the election and political process.” The bill is ambitious, and is composed of numerous goals, such as campaign finance reform, lobbying and better participation in elections.
Van Hollen focused on the abysmal voting rates among American citizens, stating that “It is disappointing when you look at how few people exercise their right to vote.” He went on to compare the United States with other nations where “people are yearning for the right to vote and participate in elections,” declaring that “here in the United States we take that for granted.” He drove this point home by reading out the statistics on voting in both the presidential elections and midterms, explaining that in presidential elections, roughly 60% of eligible voters cast votes, but that in midterms that rate drops severely to about 40%. The senator then compared these rates to that of younger voters, stating that in presidential elections there is about a 40-50% turnout, and 20-25% in midterms.
He also spoke about the need to make voting easier, thereby removing some of the barriers to participation that have historically stood in the way. Van Hollen was asked by an audience member if he supported making election day a national holiday, to which he replied that he was in favor, saying “It’s so important.” He highlighted the benefits of same day voter registration, a piece of legislation already enacted by the Maryland General Assembly, as well as the need to reaffirm the weakened Voting Rights Act.
Van Hollen also tackled the issue of dark money in politics, a term referring to money spent influencing elections by organizations that are not required to disclose the identity of their donors. He lambasted the the Citizens United decision, stating that it “took a bad system and made it much worse,” adding “I believe they twisted the first amendment.” Using this court case, Van Hollen dove home the importance of voting, explaining that this vote was a 5-4 decision, and like in so many other cases and elections, one vote made all the difference, setting a standard for decades to come. He pushed back against the idea that money in politics will self-regulate, stating that “when you unleash millions and millions of dollars, that doesn’t self-police,” gaining laughter from the audience.
The senator ended by re-emphasizing the need to participate in democracy, stating “Bottom line, every vote counts. Please do everything you can to participate in our democracy. At the very least take part in our elections.”