Civil rights groups have accused President Joe Biden of "empty platitudes" on voting rights after he defended the filibuster as his administration reportedly shifts focus away from passing major legislation and toward a push to "out-organize" new Republican voting laws inspired by former President Donald Trump's false claims of election fraud.
In unusually forceful rhetoric, Biden has compared new restrictions in Republican-led states to Jim Crow-era racial voter suppression and called the onslaught of legislation to limit ballot access the "most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War." But in the eyes of many activists, he has refused to follow up those words with actions. Last week, Biden forcefully defended the filibuster, which has prevented any voting legislation from advancing in the Senate.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who Biden tapped to lead the administration's voting rights efforts, has increasingly focused on boosting Democratic National Committee funding for voter registration and legal efforts, even as a recent Supreme Court decision has made it less likely that Democrats can sue to overturn new restrictions. White House officials have sent mixed messages, reportedly telling voting rights groups that it is possible to "out-organize voter suppression," although some Biden advisers have pushed back against that framing while acknowledging that "organizing was integral to the administration's efforts."
Civil rights groups have called Biden's shift a "slap in the face of Black and brown voters that helped him get elected."
"Empty platitudes and statements about the problem [are] no longer sufficient for Black and brown voters who have been organizing on the ground," Stephany Spaulding, a spokesperson for Just Democracy, a coalition of dozens of civil rights groups, and the founder of Truth & Reconciliation, said in an interview with Salon, calling on Biden to "operate with the full force of his office."
Litigation and organizing will be key components in the Democratic strategy to counter the onslaught of new election laws, "but can only go so far," Aaron Scherb, the director of legislative affairs at the nonpartisan voting group Common Cause, told Salon, calling the White House line about "out-organizing" voter suppression "insulting to the hundreds of thousands of organizers who worked tirelessly to turn out voters."
Republicans have passed at least 30 laws in 18 states that nonpartisan voting experts say will make it harder for Americans to vote, especially in areas with high Black and Latino populations. Other states like Texas and Michigan are pushing even more onerous restrictions. Some states, like Georgia, have enacted legislation that would make it easier for Republican officials to take control of local election administration and overturn unfavorable election results.
Georgia Republicans have wasted no time in using the law to try to overthrow local election officials in Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold that has the highest Black population in the state.
"We cannot out-organize partisan takeovers of our election systems when they are sanctioned by law, however unjust those laws may be," Nsé Ufot, chief executive officer of the New Georgia Project, said in a statement to Salon. "We are desperately losing the war on voting rights, and we need the federal government to step in before our democracy is irreparably damaged."
Most Democrats have rallied behind the For the People Act, a sweeping voting rights package that includes provisions touching on virtually every part of election administration, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore a requirement for states with a history of racial discrimination to "pre-clear" election changes with the Justice Department. But all 50 Republicans in the Senate joined in a filibuster of the For the People Act, which the GOP has criticized as a partisan overreach, even after a compromise offer floated by centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Manchin has expressed opposition to the For the People Act and key Senate Democrats are now working with him to craft revised legislation that is expected to retain measures dealing with gerrymandering, mail voting and automatic voter registration as well as a nationwide voter ID requirement. Manchin has said he would support a version of the John Lewis bill but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already dismissed the need for the bill. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is the lone Republican to say she would support such a compromise plan, leaving Democrats at least nine votes of breaking a filibuster.
Voting rights advocates remain optimistic that a revised bill could move the needle in the Senate.
"The first point is getting a package that all 50 Senate Democrats can unify behind" before moving to the next step, which is "how to get it done," Scherb said. "I think increasingly all Senate Democrats recognize what they have to do. It's just a matter of trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B."
Biden's team has pushed back against criticism that the White House is backing off its push to advance voting rights legislation. The administration has been reportedly been involved in talks about the compromise bill in the Senate and top Biden adviser Cedric Richmond, formerly a member of Congress, has promised that organizing is only part of the strategy, vowing to "meet this challenge in courts, in the halls of Congress and in the streets."
But Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told The New York Times that she has heard an increasing "emphasis on organizing" from the White House. Ifill warned that "we cannot litigate our way out of this and we cannot organize our way out of this."
Progressive lawmakers have criticized the administration for putting the onus of combating Republican restrictions on predominantly Black and brown voting rights groups.
"This takes for granted the black and brown communities that bear the brunt of voter suppression, and who worked to elect leaders who would protect them," tweeted Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y. "The White House should change its strategy and push for filibuster reform before it's too late."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., warned that "communities cannot 'out-organize' voter suppression when those they organize to elect won't protect the vote."
"And even if they DO out-organize, the ground is being set to overturn results," she tweeted.
"It will not matter how many people are registered to vote if they do not have access to a ballot," Spaulding told Salon, calling for the full abolition of the filibuster. "Everything else is just Band-aids on the bullet wound."
Biden last week argued that eliminating the filibuster would "throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done," a comment that, as some observers noted, seems to assume that anything gets done in the Senate now. The president said he wants to "make sure we bring along not just all the Democrats, we bring along Republicans who I know know better."
But it's unclear which Republicans Biden believes he can win over between now and the 2022 midterm elections, since the party has been united in opposition to the Democrats' voting rights proposals.
"I don't think anybody's operating on the assumption they can get 10 Republican votes,, even for a compromise bill," Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, said in an interview with Salon. "Maybe Joe Manchin thinks they can try it but I don't think you can get 10 votes."
Last week, 150 civil rights groups led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights signed a letter to Biden calling for him to "support the passage of these bills by whatever means necessary."
"While we fully support the ideal of bipartisan cooperation on voting rights, the partisan political agenda of some in the Senate cannot be allowed to block passage of legislation that has broad bipartisan backing," the letter said, adding that "we cannot and should not have to organize our way out of the attacks and restrictions on voting."
White House officials privately told the Times that even if Biden supported ending the filibuster, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., would still oppose the move. Manchin on Sunday reiterated that he would not support any carveouts in the filibuster rule to advance the voting rights bills.
Voting rights advocates respond that Biden has publicly pressured senators on his stimulus and infrastructure proposals, but has yet to do so on the issue most central to preserving democracy — not to mention Democrats' electoral fortunes.
"Certainly the White House has made the calculation that infrastructure's extremely important, which it is, but I think all rights are derivative from voting rights, and I think that needs to be a continued priority from the White House," Scherb said.
He recalled Lyndon B. Johnson traveling the country during the debate over the Voting Rights Act, seeking to put "pressure on the Senate that this is the issue that must get done."
"We really need the president and the administration to use its full power of the bully pulpit," he said.
The Biden administration has in fact taken unilateral action to push back on some of the new laws. The Justice Department earlier this year sued Georgia over new voting laws it said had been "passed with a discriminatory purpose" and "adopted with the intent" to restrict Black voters' rights. Last week, the department warned states that new election laws and dubious so-called election audits, like the seemingly endless one in Arizona's Maricopa County, must comply with federal law.
But "litigation can take a number of years," Scherb said, and "the clock is certainly a challenge" as the 2022 election approaches. Last month's Supreme Court decision upholding discriminatory voting laws in Arizona also made it "much more challenging to file legislation under the Voting Rights Act," he said.
While the DOJ and voting rights groups may still have valid challenges in court, Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a news conference in June that the DOJ's best efforts were "not enough" to combat the voting restriction blitz and called on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act's pre-clearance requirement, which he said would have prevented laws like Georgia's from being enacted in the first place.
The Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that federal courts have no jurisdiction over partisan gerrymanders, a growing concern among Democrats as Republicans, who have control over a majority of states' congressional maps, reportedly plan to try to use the redistricting process to make it more likely they can win a House majority in 2022. The Supreme Court's decision kicked oversight of the maps to state courts, but Southern states like Texas and Georgia, where people of color have accounted for most of the population growth over the last decade, have "very few protections" against partisan or racial gerrymanders, said Li. And increasingly conservative state courts in North Carolina and Florida may not be the bulwark Democrats hope for.
The For the People Act includes a measure that would ban partisan gerrymanders under federal law.
"It's a really ominous-looking redistricting cycle unless Congress acts," Li said, adding that "you can't out-organize gerrymandering."
While most of the focus in the voting rights fight has been on the attacks on voting, the districts drawn in the coming election cycle won't merely disadvantage Democrats in 2022, but will almost certainly create a built-in Republican edge for the next decade.
"I don't think enough people are focusing on what's coming out in just two weeks," Li said, referring to the deadline for Census data that will be used to redraw congressional and legislative maps. "The voter suppression laws are making it harder to vote in the midterm," he said, but gerrymandering effectively renders many people's votes meaningless by diluting the vote share of Democrats and voters of color.
Democrats have touted the work of voting rights leaders like Stacey Abrams and groups that helped register and turn out voters in 2020, helping Biden win the White House and giving Democrats control of the Senate. But Biden won the electoral vote by just about 44,000 ballots in three states and the Democrats' control of Congress is tenuous at best. By anyone's calculation, it won't take much to tilt future elections the other way.
"Voter suppression can have that level of effect — that's not a huge effect, but it's enough," Li said. "Every day that passes,it becomes harder to do something that is robust and meaningful."