Civil rights leaders find meeting with WH ‘encouraging’ amidst voting rights battle

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President Biden met with civil rights leaders for almost two hours on Thursday as part of a broader effort by his administration to focus on voting rights, a key part of his agenda that has struggled to overcome the roadblock that is the evenly split Senate. 

The civil rights leaders emerged from the meeting, which included discussions on voting rights legislation and police reform, describing the U.S. as in a state of emergency. 

They cited restrictive voting laws imposed this year in states such as Georgia and Florida, and a recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld Arizona’s voting restrictions.

“We came here at the invitation of the president to underscore the state of emergency that this country faces when it comes to democracy,” National Urban League president and CEO Marc Morial told reporters after the conclusion of the nearly two-hour the meeting. “Democracy is under vigorous vicious and sinister attack.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton described the interaction as a “very candid, no holds barred meeting.”

The participants didn’t offer specifics about the discussion with White House officials beyond saying that they emphasized the need for Congress to pass voting rights legislation and promised to use the summer to build a movement against new voting rights laws enacted by Republican-controlled states. 

“We’re gratified that he recognizes the nature of the emergency but we have no illusions about what we are up against,” said NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund director counsel Sherrilyn Ifill. “This is a very serious and sober moment.” 

The White House in a readout of the meeting said that Biden and Vice President Harris “reiterated that they will continue to push for Congress to pass critical legislation that protects the right to vote and combats subversion of the election process, while continuing to utilize all existing authorities in an all-of-government effort to ensure full voter participation and elections that reflect the will of the people.”

The attendees also included Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law president and executive director Damon Hewitt; Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights interim president and CEO Wade Henderson; National Coalition on Black Civic Participation president and CEO Melanie Campbell; NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson and National Council of Negro Women chair and president Johnnetta Betsch Cole.

Johnson, who joined the meeting virtually, tweeted that it was “encouraging.”

There is no clear path forward for federal voting rights legislation after Senate Republicans blocked the chamber from considering the For the People Act, a bill that would dramatically overhaul the country’s election laws, last month. The failure of the bill has renewed debate among Democrats about killing the filibuster in the Senate. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday said Biden looks forward to signing federal legislation expanding access to voting but said he wasn’t waiting to take other actions at the federal level. She referred to actions by the Justice Department to challenge voting restrictions in states and a new $25 million initiative by the Democratic National Committee that Vice President Harris announced on Thursday. 

“We also believe very much that empowering and engaging activists and creating grassroots movements, something that the vice president is continuing to play a very prominent and prevalent role in doing, is also a part of how we’re going to fight legislation and fight actions to suppress voters around the country,” Psaki said. 

The other marquee voting rights bill that Democrats have publicized in recent months is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

It has yet to be introduced this session of Congress, but the legislation named after the late Georgia congressman and voting rights champion would update the formula used to determine federal preclearance that was originally in the Voting Rights Act.

Advocates and Democrats have made the argument that a renewed federal preclearance would prevent many of the restrictive voting laws that have been introduced and passed this year by GOP-led state legislatures. 

As it was, the federal preclearance required states and jurisdictions with noted histories of racial voting discrimination to get have all proposed changes to voting laws be first approved by the Justice Department.

But, the Supreme Court in 2013 ruled the formula outdated and therefore unconstitutional in the landmark Shelby v. Holder case.

Urgency among proponents of both bills was further raised last week when the Supreme Court ruled again on voting rights, this time upholding a pair of Arizona’s restrictive voting protocols.

Many fear that the conservative-leaning court’s decision stripped a substantial amount of the remaining power the Voting Rights Acts had to stop discriminatory voting practices.

“We also know that it is not likely that we can organize our way out of the problem facing the country today. We need legislation, the two bills that we discussed in some form. And that time is of the essence,” said Henderson. “This needs to be done this summer while the Senate and the House are still in session and that we are encouraging the Senate to stay in session until such efforts are complete.” 

Civil rights leaders have been active during the beginning months of the Biden administration, engaging lawmakers not only on voting rights but also police reform, another legislative priority of Democrats.

Morial noted that the leaders have met with numerous members of Congress, including Republicans, and said they would be willing to meet with anyone to advance voting rights legislation, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

“We have and we will not leave any stone unturned to save American democracy,” Morial told reporters. 

After months of negotiations, the trio of Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) announced two weeks ago that they had come to a framework agreement on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which Bass first introduced last June after the police murder of Floyd.

Updated: 9:38 p.m.

Tags Arizona Cory Booker Florida Georgia Jen Psaki Joe Biden John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Act Karen Bass Mitch McConnell police reform Supreme Court Tim Scott voting rights

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