‘He’s phoning it in’: why Biden is losing the voting rights fight

For months, Biden and other Democrats have raised alarm about efforts to restrict the vote. Republicans have succeeded nonetheless.

Since January, Republican lawmakers in Georgia, Florida, Iowa, Arkansas and Montana have all enacted new legislation that impose new barriers to voting. The successful Republican filibuster this week – which stalled the sweeping voting rights legislation, the For the People Act – only underscored how Democrats have failed to stop GOP efforts to curtail the vote.

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Democrats have pledged the fight for voting rights is far from over, but activists told the Guardian it did not feel like Biden and Democrats were meeting the moment and treating the fight for voting rights with the urgency it deserved.

“They’re checking the boxes,” said Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, an advocacy group that is focused on mobilizing Black voters. “They’re not acting like we are facing an existential crisis. That’s the problem. It’s from the top down,” added Albright, who is currently on a multi-state bus tour across the south to raise awareness about the need for voting protections.

After the bill stalled this week, the White House this week made a clear escalation of its efforts on voting rights. Biden announced he is embarking on a nationwide voting rights tour to highlight the threat of new GOP laws. “I’m going to be going around the country, making the case to the American people that this isn’t just about [showing identification] or being able to give someone water in line, this is about who is able to judge whether your vote gets counted,” he said at the White House on Thursday.

The justice department also announced Friday that it was filing a major voting rights case challenging a sweeping new voting law in Georgia, one of the biggest voting cases the department has filed in recent years.

The suit is a “step in the right direction,” said Albright, and would signal to other states that efforts to restrict voter access would not be tolerated.

But Democrats have a narrow window to pass legislation. In August, state lawmakers will begin the once-per-decade process of redrawing US House and other state legislative districts, a procedure Republicans are poised to use to wipe out Democrats’ majority in the US House. The For the People Act would curb excessive manipulation of district lines for partisan gain, and if it isn’t in place by August, Republicans would be free to freely gerrymander districts.

“The Republicans, they’re putting everything to stop it. I need that to be matched with the same kind of passion and commitment and to be vocal,” said LaTosha Brown, the other co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “I have not seen the kind of response that makes me believe they’re seeing this as a do-or-die moment for American democracy.”

The problem isn’t that Biden isn’t paying attention, the activists say. The president issued a series of modest, but potentially consequential, executive orders expanding voting rights in March. He has appointed some of the country’s top voting rights lawyers to the upper echelons of the Justice Department, which recently announced it was doubling the number of attorneys focused on voting rights issues. And he has a White House adviser focused on voting rights.

Biden has also been unsparing in his criticism of Republican efforts to make it harder to vote, ripping the efforts as “sick,” “un-American,” and “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”

Still, some think Biden so far has failed to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to treat the issue as an emergency, said Ezra Levin, the founder of Indivisible, a progressive grassroots group.

“He’s phoning it in,” Levin said. “We’ll see what the public actions look like. We’ll see how overwhelming the campaign is…so far we’ve seen basically no action, so any action is an improvement.”

While the White House has highlighted its public commitment to voting rights, some advisers privately don’t think the GOP-backed rules will be as big a boon to Republicans as some fear, according to The Atlantic. Advisers privately see infrastructure as a better political winning issue for Biden, the Associated Press reported.

“Recently, I’ve been encouraged to see him name voting rights as a priority, but at this point, words simply aren’t enough. We have heard more about a watered-down, bipartisan infrastructure bill than we have about how the White House will help House Democrats save our ailing democracy,” Mondaire Jones, a Democratic congressman from New York, said in a statement. “So we need action with the urgency that this crisis demands.”

Brown, the Black Voters Matter activist, said Biden and Democrats in Washington should emulate Texas Democrats, who last month walked out of the state legislature, denying GOP lawmakers a quorum needed to pass legislation. Even though the legislature will reconvene in a special session next month and likely ultimately pass the bill, Republicans have already walked back some of the most damaging provisions. The maneuver also offered a jolt of energy and a symbolic win for Democrats after months.

Biden has shown some flashes of upping the stakes. In April, he caught many off guard when he endorsed the idea of Major League Baseball moving its All Star Game out of Atlanta in response to Georgia’s new voting law. MLB did just that days later, offering some of the firmest consequences to Republicans to date for a voting law.

Earlier this month, Biden also appeared to fire a shot at two moderate Democrats in the senate, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, two of the staunchest defenders of the filibuster, saying there were “two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.” The White House quickly walked back the comments, saying Biden was not talking about the two senators.

But when Biden gave a speech to Congress earlier this year, he only mentioned voting rights briefly, towards the end of his remarks. “If I’m your opposition, and I tell you something’s important to me, and then I only give it 30 seconds, how seriously are you going to take me?,” Albright said.

If Biden and Democrats were ultimately unable to pass voting rights legislation, Brown said, it would be “devastating” to Black voters, who not only played a big role in getting Biden to the White House, but also helped Democrats flip two Georgia US senate seats in January.

“The message that it sends is that they’re not willing to go hard to deliver the things that we were expecting when we went out to vote for them and we risked our lives to do so,” Albright said. “The message that they’re sending is that they’re OK with a little bit of Jim Crow.”

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