Voting rights advocates eager for Biden to use bully pulpit
President Biden has mostly worked behind closed doors as the White House maps out its next steps on voting rights, but advocates are growing impatient as they warn time is running out to spotlight the issue before restrictive state laws and new maps are imposed for the 2022 midterms.
The president pledged last month he would use the bully pulpit to directly address GOP-led efforts at the state level to make it more difficult for some groups to vote. After making weekly trips to promote his infrastructure package, Biden on Tuesday will travel for the first time to speak on voting rights.
Progressives and voting rights leaders who have attended recent meetings at the White House say administration officials are taking the issue seriously, and allies are confident more action is on the way. Still, some are cautioning that Biden’s lack of outward urgency reflects poorly on his priorities.
“I think what we’ve seen are statements, behind-closed-door meetings, a vanishingly small expenditure of political capital compared to priorities like infrastructure. It’s just not a comparison,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the progressive group Indivisible.
“I think it’s a political miscalculation of historic proportions, and I’m hoping they switch course in the coming days and weeks,” Levin added. “I think I would like to see them treat the crumbling of American democracy at the same level that they treat the crumbling of roads and bridges.”
Senate Republicans on June 22 blocked the For the People Act, a sweeping bill to overhaul federal elections that Democrats have cited as a major legislative priority. Biden, in a statement that night, said he would have “more to say” on the issue the following week.
Instead, Biden has held private meetings with voting rights experts, senior White House officials have met with groups focused on turning out young voters, and the president met Thursday with civil rights leaders. Attendees described those meetings as encouraging, though they said it was premature to say for certain what concrete steps the administration might take in the coming weeks.
Biden will speak in Philadelphia on Tuesday on voting rights in his first major speech on the issue since the GOP blocked the Senate bill from advancing.
“The speech the president is delivering is about our fundamental right to vote in the country and the moral obligation we all have to defend that, stand up for that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday. “It’s not about legislative process, and this issue is bigger than that.”
That Biden won’t directly pressure certain senators or outline the path forward legislatively is likely to disappoint some progressives who believe stalled voting rights legislation offers the clearest signal yet that it’s time to do away with the Senate filibuster.
Voting rights groups have been sounding the alarm as dozens of laws are introduced in state legislatures that would make it more difficult for certain minority groups to vote by adding restrictions on absentee voting and requiring voter ID.
The Supreme Court added a further sense of urgency among Democrats earlier this month when it upheld two Arizona laws that critics argue suppress the vote, including one requiring provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct be discarded.
“This is about protecting the right to vote and ensuring all of our votes count and matter, but it’s also about the attacks on democracy at large and safeguarding our democracy from the attacks that we’ve been seeing for decades,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of the progressive group MoveOn, urging the White House to “go big” on voting rights “before it’s too late.”
The White House has been adamant that it sees voting rights as a long-term issue Biden will not shy away from.
Biden has held multiple meetings in recent weeks with stakeholders. He tapped Vice President Harris to lead the administration’s efforts to protect voting rights, and she has also met with activists and state lawmakers. Harris on Thursday announced a $25 million expansion of the Democratic National Committee’s “I Will Vote” initiative.
Clarissa Unger, head of the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition and one of the participants in a meeting with White House officials Susan Rice and Cedric Richmond this past week, pointed to a handful of concrete steps the White House could take to help get young voters registered and educated on the issue.
She and other attendees urged the White House to ask the Department of Education to remind colleges that the Higher Education Act requires institutions to promote voter registration opportunities. Unger also suggested the White House could issue an updated report on what colleges and universities are doing to promote civil learning and democratic engagement, something that hasn’t been done since 2012.
“The administration is only a few months in,” Unger said. “They’ve had a lot they have to manage, and they have almost three more years left to go. So while it’s very important and you want to see action now, I’m really encouraged and happy they are focusing so much on voting rights.”
But some advocates argue time is of the essence as Republicans implement new voting laws and with redistricting on the horizon. They argue if Republicans win majorities in the House and Senate in 2022, Biden’s agenda will be all but frozen in place, making it all the more critical to act now on voting rights.
“I’m heartened to see President Biden is making a speech next week, and I want to see more of it,” Epting said on Friday. “He should be traveling the country talking to voters, talking to the people, making the case, defining what the attacks are that Republicans have been launching in Arizona, Michigan, Texas and elsewhere and making the case why we need to pass federal legislation.”