But if the Senate takes up the Democrats’ signature electoral law next week to expand access to voting, it will fail. Except for a change of heart below 10 republicans or certain Democrats drop their opposition to the change in Senate rules, Biden’s legislative agenda on electoral and electoral protection will be dramatically curtailed.
The White House says it is using every tool to draw attention to restrictive voting laws in GOP-led states across the country, including potential legal challenges. Government officials say Biden speaks about attacking electoral access in all of his major speeches to send a signal not only to voters but also to those in power that this is a personal priority. And while the decision to transfer the voting portfolio to Vice President Kamala Harris was interpreted as a sign that the White House viewed the problem as persistent, senior officials insist that “convening” actually showed her how seriously they take it.
“It’s a comprehensive strategy, ”said Cedric Richmond, director of the Public Engagement Office at the White House. “All hands are on deck and we are ready to take on the challenge.”
In the coming week, the Senate is expected to vote on its own comprehensive voting and electoral reforms after the House of Representatives narrowly passed its version earlier this year. Despite the roadblocks, the White House is not conceding any legislative defeat. “Sometimes it’s not the most attractive method,” said Richmond. “It’s the process of making laws, but we’re not waiting for it.”
To build momentum, the White House turned to Harris. Last month, the vice president traveled to South Carolina to hold a listening session with local voting proxies and met with Texan lawmakers Wednesday to step up efforts to push back a state GOP law restricting the right to vote. Republican lawmakers in states across the country are proposing or introducing new barriers to postal voting, targeting election administrators with criminal penalties in response to the false conspiracies spread by former President Donald Trump about stolen elections.
To combat change in Republican-led states, the White House has also sought allies in the private sector.
“We’ve spoken to business people everywhere,” said Richmond. “We want companies to take action and talk about the importance of meaningful voting rights.”
Richmond added that the White House is urging companies “to do everything in their toolbox” to not only encourage voting, but “to shed light on those laws that are designed to discourage people from voting or put obstacles in their place.”
Harris plans to meet with members of the private sector in the future. Despite traveling to Atlanta on Friday to continue the government’s vaccine push, a senior administration official said “the vote will be part of it.” Aides say the vice president is focused on building a coalition across the country, including activists and lawmakers, to put pressure on state and local governments.
But the most far-reaching action by the Biden government is unlikely to come within the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Instead, the Justice Department will be at the center of the president’s struggle with states that pass new electoral laws that restrict access to voting.
“Enforcing the laws that we have is vital,” said Justin Levitt, White House senior political advisor on democracy and suffrage. Levitt, who worked in the Obama administration’s Justice Department, quickly added that enforcement decisions are “entirely in the hands” of Attorney General Merrick Garland.
In a speech last week, Garland documented the country’s history of preventing African-Americans and people of color from voting, and promised to increase the civil rights division of the ministry to enforce the law. Garland said the DOJ is “reviewing” new laws passed by states “to curb voter access” and vowed that the agency would “act without hesitation” without specifically predicting litigation.
“Without new federal laws, the greatest leverage is the Biden administration [the] DOJ, ”said Rick Hasen, professor of suffrage at the University of California, Irvine. The Department of Justice can take action under the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, National Voter Registration Act and other laws “to ensure federal voting rights protection and fair electoral law are respected,” he said.
“This is not as good for the protection of voting rights as the Preclearance, who was murdered by the Supreme Court in 2013,” said Hasen, referring to parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which were struck down in a decision called Shelby v. Holder. “But it’s better than nothing.”
Civil rights groups, activists, and state lawmakers are not blaming the White House for the current deadlock in Congress. A majority speaking to POLITICO said the White House was doing everything it can except publicly cornering Democratic Senators who opposed changing the Senate filibuster, which is a threshold for most laws 60 votes required. Biden himself did not support the idea of major changes to the filibuster, even if progressives are pushing the idea of an exception specifically for voting and election legislation.
Democratic activists and civil rights activists have turned much of their anger and frustration towards Congress instead.
“It is ironic at best, and indeed insulting, that the Senate unanimously turns what happened in 1865 into a holiday … but then ignores the racial implications of what happened in 2021 when voting,” Rev. Al said Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, is referring to measures taken by Congress this week to make June 10th, the date that marks the end of slavery in the United States, a national holiday.
Even the Democrats in Congress say the responsibility is theirs. When asked what influence the Biden government could have on strengthening electoral protection, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) Said, “I think less about the Biden presidency than about what we are doing here.”
Kaine said some of his Democratic counterparts “firmly believe” that if changes to electoral law restricting voting rights go unchallenged, “they will be pessimistic about their chances in ’22 or 24”.
This week, Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Who was the only Democrat in the Senate, upheld the party’s electoral law. introduced its own reform proposals. The Senate will vote on the bill next week, with changes being made to gain Manchin’s support. But it will fail without at least ten Republican votes.
Spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn made it clear to House Democrats this week that they have pledged to pass as much of their electoral law and re-authorize voting rights as possible, several House Democratic advisors told POLITICO. Democratic leaders believe it is important to have a proposal that can win Democratic support in both houses, a House source said.
A senior administrative officer dealing with voting rights said Wednesday that he had not had a chance to look at Manchin’s proposed changes. The White House did not want to comment on Thursday.
Despite the hard math, the White House and most Democratic lawmakers are not going to publicly stage a scenario where their key voting and electoral laws will not be able to pass both houses. And Richmond said the White House is unwilling to admit that the only way forward is to get rid of the filibuster.
Right now they are working on the margins. On Wednesday, Harris met in the Roosevelt Room with 16 of the Texas Democrats who left the Capitol in May to block the passage of a law that would have restricted voting rights in the state.
The group discussed Texas law, but also spoke to Harris about what the government and Congress can do at the federal level. Texas lawmakers who attended the meeting said Harris understood that it had to be a national effort. Harris made no promises in her conversation with the Texas Democrats, but told them it was a priority.
“Our plan was to come to DC to try and spark this country’s imagination about how bad things are in Texas. That was our Moonshot plan, ”said Gina Hinojosa, Texas State representative, after the meeting. “Texas really is ground zero for efforts to suppress GOP voters. And I think if you’re not there and you’re not living it, you don’t understand how bad it is. “
Marianne LeVine contributed to the reporting.