Biden Urged to Defend Voting Rights as GOP Pursues New Limits

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President Joe Biden faces growing pressure from his party’s left to wage an all-out defense of voting rights, as Republican-held statehouses pursue restrictions that would fall heaviest on Black voters who helped Democrats win the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Some activists say Biden should reshuffle his priorities and set aside work on a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure and economic recovery plan to focus on combating efforts to making voting more difficult.

Across the U.S., Republican state lawmakers are considering bills that would restrict access to the ballot, including by curtailing or eliminating mail-in and early voting, and imposing new ID requirements.

The campaign is being energized by false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election that former President Donald Trump lost, as well as strong turnout by Democrats -- and particularly people of color -- in early and mail voting.

If they’re successful, the efforts could help Republicans regain control of Congress in 2022, effectively halting Biden’s agenda, and even flip the White House two years after that. Biden has been outspoken in support for expanding voting rights and ending state policies regarded as discriminatory by Democrats, but he’s not elevated the issue to the top of his agenda -- a move that could touch off a distracting battle with congressional Republicans over Senate procedure.

Black political leaders and activists, particularly, are raising alarms about the Republican efforts, and want Biden to throw the weight of the White House behind legislation the House passed this month that would make it significantly easier for Americans to vote.

“It is unprecedented in modern times, the attack we’re seeing on minority voting rights,” Representative G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from North Carolina and chair of the House elections subcommittee, said in an interview. “Everyone knows if racial minorities fully participate in the electoral process, Democrats win -- that is a political fact and Republicans know that.”

Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Georgia group Black Voters Matter, said Biden should “put voting rights above everything else.” The group’s get-out-the-vote efforts helped deliver the state for Biden and for Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in January Senate run-off elections.

“At the end of the day, if they don’t pass the voting rights bill and stop the suppression that’s taking place now, then guess what, every other policy becomes irrelevant because you won’t be able to get anything done,” Albright said in an interview.

Multiple Priorities

A White House official said Biden’s trying to address multiple priorities, including the coronavirus vaccination campaign, economic recovery, and social inequities. The official also pointed out that many of the president’s top Justice Department appointees, who’ll be key to enforcing voting protections, have yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, last week said the Senate will debate a voting rights bill, saying “failure is not an option.”

The Senate Rules Committee will hold a hearing on the bill this week and schedule a markup to advance it to the floor soon after, Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is working to unite Republicans against the legislation, which he says would gives Democrats permanent advantages in federal elections. GOP senators are expected to filibuster an attempt to vote on the bill.

That’s led liberal groups to press Schumer, Senate Democrats and Biden to change Senate rules so that 60 votes are no longer required to end a filibuster. Some Democrats have begun to call the procedure a relic of the Jim Crow era, intrinsically racist itself.

Changing the rules would only require a simple majority -- all 50 Democrats plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. But two Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, haven’t committed to change the 60-vote threshold.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, considered to have saved Biden’s Democratic primary campaign by endorsing him ahead of the South Carolina primary, has characterized new voting rights legislation as crucial to the future of the country.

“I didn’t march in the streets and spend nights in jail as a young man to find myself fighting the same battles generations later,” Clyburn said in a series of tweets on Friday.

Biden, a former senator who for decades supported retaining the power of the minority to filibuster legislation, said in an interview with ABC News last week that he now wants changes.

“I don’t think that you have to eliminate the filibuster, you have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate,” Biden said. “You had to stand up and command the floor, you had to keep talking.”

Meanwhile, Republicans in state legislatures are moving rapidly. They’ve filed more than 250 bills in 43 states to make it harder to vote, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for greater U.S. voter participation.

GOP lawmakers describe the efforts as needed to combat the threat of voter fraud and address the concerns of Republican voters, many of whom echo Trump’s false claims that Biden was unlawfully elected.

Statehouse Majorities

Republican majorities in statehouses nationwide makes it likely that at least some of the new restrictions will become law. The GOP controls legislatures in 23 states, while Democrats hold power in just 15. Eleven are divided.

Georgia, where Biden traveled on Friday, is a flashpoint. Bills under consideration in the GOP-led legislature could help ensure Senator Raphael Warnock isn’t re-elected and a Republican remains in the governor’s mansion in 2022, and that the state returns to the GOP column in the 2024 presidential election.

Albright’s group is waging a campaign with other groups to pressure the state’s large corporations -- including Coca-Cola Co., Home Depot Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., Aflac Inc. and Southern Co. -- to publicly oppose the bills.

On Friday, Biden met with Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, who along with Albright’s group has been credited with flipping the state to Democrats. She’s called for an exception to the Senate filibuster rule for voting-rights legislation.

Biden, Harris, Abrams, Ossoff, Warnock and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms discussed the Republican efforts to make it harder to vote, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement Friday.

They discussed possible solutions and Biden “re-affirmed his commitment to re-authorizing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act,” Jean-Pierre said.

Biden on Friday also recounted Trump’s unsubstantiated post-election claims of widespread fraud in Georgia, and how that translates into the current fight over ballot access.

‘Going to Fight’

“As this state -- home to Martin Luther King Jr and John Lewis -- knows better than most, the battle for the right to vote is never, ever over. And it’s not over, here in this state of Georgia. So we’re going to fight again. It’s a fight we need to win because if anyone ever doubted that voting matters, Georgia just proved it did,” Biden said.

The White House is looking for ways for the president to push back against statehouse Republicans with his executive authority. Earlier this month, Biden issued an executive order requiring federal departments and agencies to help Americans register to vote.

Butterfield said he thinks Biden may first try to find compromise with Senate Republicans on voting-rights legislation before backing an end to the filibuster rule.

“But if all of that fails,” he said, “then I think President Biden is willing to do whatever’s necessary to fulfill the promise that he made to the American people.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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