WASHINGTON – Facing a call to “save American democracy,” the Biden administration has unveiled new efforts to protect access to the ballot amid rising complaints from civil rights activists and other Democrats that the White House hasn't done enough to counter Republican-led state legislatures attempting to narrow voting procedures.
President Joe Biden met with civil rights leaders Thursday in the West Wing, while Vice President Kamala Harris announced $25 million in new spending by the Democratic National Committee on actions to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Biden and his team stress ongoing legal efforts to safeguard voting rights. They've also promised a major legislative push after Senate Republicans blocked a sweeping election overhaul last month. The president has told reporters he plans on “speaking extensively” on voting rights and that he would be “going on the road on this issue.”
Friday, the White House announced that Biden would travel to Philadelphia on Tuesday to discuss “actions to protect the sacred, constitutional right to vote.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president will “go to the birthplace of democracy to make the case for the moral imperative of making voting more accessible to people across the country."
There has been growing frustration among those in Biden's own party who view GOP actions on voting as an existential threat to both Democrats and democracy.
Pressure only mounted after a Supreme Court decision limited the ability of minorities to challenge state laws that Democrats say are discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act. Biden has brought in outside advocates for meetings at the White House and has consulted advisers on the best strategy for combatting new laws.
“We will not leave any stone unturned to save American democracy,” said Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League, as he stood with the Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders after Thursday's meeting. ”This is an attack on a very fundamental value that undergirds this country. When we look at what’s happening in this nation, we see an effort to impose a system, American apartheid.”
During the meeting, Biden and Harris assured the civil rights leaders that they would push Congress to pass voting legislation, while doing everything within the administration's power to secure full voter participation in elections, according to a White House summary.
This Thursday's speech from Harris, tasked with leading the administration’s response to voting issues, was expected to be the first from her in a series.
“This campaign is grounded in the firm belief that everyone’s vote matters -- that your vote matters,” Harris said. “We want to help to make sure your vote is counted, and that is because our democracy is strongest when everyone participates.”
Several states enacted new voting laws, and others are debating them, after Republicans seized on former President Donald Trump’s false claim of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election as a pretext for passing new legislation curtailing ballot access.
Democrats have grown nervous that the new laws could suppress turnout for next year’s midterm elections when the party is trying to hold on to very narrow margins in both chambers of Congress.
“Folks, it is never too early to defend your rights,” Harris said. “With these new laws that have been passed, or they’re trying to, we have to start now to finish strong.”
But some Democrats and voting rights activists believe that the White House did not start nearly soon enough.
“Our backs are against the wall. This is the moment. We have no more time,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "I told the president: We will not be able to litigate our way out of this threat to Black citizenship.”
“We must have the president use his voice," Ifill said.
Democrats on Capitol Hill already tried to respond with a sweeping voting and elections bill. But Senate Republicans united to block it. Most Republicans have similarly dismissed a separate bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore sections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court previously weakened.
The stalemate has increased focus on the Senate filibuster, which, if left in place, would seem an insurmountable obstacle to sweeping voting bills in Congress. With Republicans unanimous in their opposition, it would take the elimination or modification of the filibuster for two bills still on the table to have a chance at passage. Moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona so far have expressed reluctance to change Senate rules that protect the filibuster.
Although not abandoning hope for a legislative breakthrough, the West Wing has been shifting focus to other measures to protect the vote, including legal action by the Department of Justice and in individual states, according to the officials. There also will be an emphasis on boosting voter turnout, with aides pointing to the successes Democrats had in getting out votes last year during the height of the pandemic.
Biden believes "that voting is a fundamental right for the American people,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki this week. “He is going to use every lever at his disposal to advocate for that.”
Officials concede, though, that turning out voters is always harder in a nonpresidential election year. Some frustrated aides, seeing the impasse in the Senate, believe too much focus has been placed on federal legislative measures. They think that civic and business groups can also play a role in fighting the voting restrictions, noting that an outcry in Georgia helped water down some of the GOP's proposed plans.
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling last week upheld voting limits in Arizona that a lower court had found discriminatory under the federal Voting Rights Act. It was the high court’s second major decision in eight years that civil rights groups and liberal dissenting justices say weakened the civil rights-era law intended to eradicate discrimination in voting.
Many Republicans continue to question the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, despite the absence of evidence of fraud. Republican elected officials in a number of states have responded by enacting restrictions on early voting and mailed-in ballots, as well as tougher voter identification laws, prompting some liberals to demand more from Biden.
“We’re past the point where we’ve lost faith that he’s going to do it on his own,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “Where’s your voting rights tour? People have already started to call this out. That’s just going to escalate.”
Lemire reported from New York.
This story has been corrected to show that the last name of the National Urban League president is Morial, not Murial.