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Swing state Democrats beg for help from Biden as Republicans seek more control over elections

Texas state Representative Jessica Gonzalez spoke during a news conference in Austin, Texas, on May 31 after House Democrats pulled off a dramatic, last-ditch walkout and blocked one of the most restrictive voting bills in the US from passing before a midnight deadline.
Texas state Representative Jessica Gonzalez spoke during a news conference in Austin, Texas, on May 31 after House Democrats pulled off a dramatic, last-ditch walkout and blocked one of the most restrictive voting bills in the US from passing before a midnight deadline.Acacia Coronado/Associated Press

PHOENIX — When the Republican-controlled state Legislature approved a measure to limit who automatically gets mail ballots here in Arizona last month, Governor Doug Ducey signed it within hours, deflating Democrats who hoped they could leverage time, scrutiny, and corporate pressure to persuade the business-minded Republican to veto a bill they say makes voting harder.

Now, Arizona Democrats are steeling for a fight against yet more GOP voting measures, like one that could expose voters with signature problems on their ballots to criminal prosecution, and another that would strip some powers from the Democratic secretary of state. And they say help from Washington can’t come soon enough.

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“It has felt like something of a war zone to just have to fight back as a state legislator against so many assaults on our democracy,” said state Representative Athena Salman, a Tempe Democrat. “I cannot express enough the level of urgency.”

But in Washington, D.C., it was not clear whether congressional Democrats and the Biden administration had a workable plan of action to combat power grabs over local elections as they navigate entrenched Republican opposition, a narrow majority, and some dissension among their own members about how to proceed.

The growing chorus from Democrats in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and other battleground states has dialed up the pressure on the White House and congressional Democrats to shore up voting rights with federal legislation as state-level Republicans push bills that could make it harder for people of color, poor people, and young people to vote while handing their party more control over the machinery of future elections.

The latter set of bills would give legislatures in Republican-dominated states more power to interfere with election administration or results just five months after a Republican president riled up a mob that attacked the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election. They have sparked fears that an anti-democratic drift in the GOP could be codified for good at the state level, leading to yet more election crises. And the existing bills in Congress would not address many of these issues.

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“This isn’t a partisan policy dispute between Democrats and Republicans,” said Ian Bassin, the executive director of a civil society group called Protect Democracy, which has tracked those bills. “This is a fight between the forces of democracy and a MAGA faction that would rather throw out democracy than share it with a multiracial nation.”

The “war zone” over voting rights in key electoral states pierced the Washington bubble last Sunday night after Texas Democrats staged a dramatic walkout that prevented Republicans from reaching the quorum they needed for a vote in the final hours of their legislative session.

The boycott temporarily stopped what would have been among the most restrictive voting laws in the nation, and President Biden, whose administration has been laser-focused on beating back the COVID pandemic and propping up the economy, ratcheted up his rhetoric in response. Standing at the site of a deadly racist massacre in Tulsa, Okla., Biden on Tuesday announced Vice President Kamala Harris will be taking up the cause of equalizing ballot access, denouncing “the truly unprecedented assault on our democracy” and calling for June to be “a month of action.”

What exactly that month of action will entail, however, is still unclear, and Biden and Harris face several political and practical constraints when it comes to countering state-level election law changes. A pair of bills his party has written to protect voting rights has languished in Washington as Biden has focused his energy negotiating with Republicans over his infrastructure proposals.

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Liberal Senate Democrats insist the sheer volume of Republican bills targeting elections has given them an opening to get something done.

“I believe that now, more Democrats are beginning to see the danger,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who said the bills have caught the attention of “even the most relaxed Democrats.”

“We’ve had very frank discussions both at lunches for all of the Democratic senators and in small groups of two and three and four,” she said. “The background keeps shifting.”

But multiple Democrats are still opposed to the filibuster reform that would be needed to pass anything without Republican support, and it’s not clear what will break the logjam.

In Congress, Democrats have proposed two bills to shore up voting rights. There is the sprawling For the People Act, which would expand voter registration, set federal limits on removing people from voter rolls, and establish independent, nonpartisan redistricting commissions, among other provisions, including prioritizing election security and campaign finance reforms. Republicans say the bill, which has already passed the House, is federal overreach, and at least one Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has announced he will not vote for it because of the lack of Republican support. The narrower John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which Manchin supports, would reestablish and strengthen parts of a 1965 law that required states to receive pre-clearance from the federal government before making changes to their voting laws. As states redraw their House districts this summer, this last provision could curtail some of the worst forms of gerrymandering; some Democrats believe this bill has a better chance of passing than the For the People Act.

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Neither has enough Republican support to survive a filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome. Manchin is the only Democrat not to cosponsor the For the People Act; meanwhile, Democrats including Manchin, Senator Krysten Sinema of Arizona, and Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire are reluctant to eliminate the filibuster rules to get a bill through.

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, spoke with reporters last month after the GOP blocked the formation of a commission on the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, spoke with reporters last month after the GOP blocked the formation of a commission on the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

In Tulsa, Biden obliquely called out Manchin and Sinema, mentioning senators who vote “more” with Republicans than Democrats, marking a new willingness on his part to put pressure on Democrats on the issue. That is seen as a welcome change to some activists, who have been baffled by a lack of urgency from Washington as local Republicans are changing the rules of the game in key states.

“We can’t just fight this in Georgia and then hop over to Florida and then hop over to Texas,” said Cliff Albright, cofounder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, calling on congressional Democrats and the Biden administration to put their “full force” behind federal legislation.

Despite the violent insurrection and an Inauguration taking place under the watchful gaze of thousands of National Guard soldiers, Washington has resumed much of its normal, pre-Jan. 6 rhythms, with Biden focusing on bread-and-butter issues such as the economy, and inviting Republicans to work with his narrow Democratic majority in Congress. That feeling of normalcy may explain some of their slowness to respond to the threats from the states.

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“I think everybody kind of let their guard down because it worked, because Biden took office, because of COVID, because Democrats took the House and the Senate,” said Jennifer Hochschild, a professor of government at Harvard who signed a letter calling for federal action to protect elections. “Democrats were slow to pick up on this.”

Trump’s lies about the election only grew more powerful within his party since Jan. 6, and Republicans in 48 states proposed hundreds of restrictive voting bills, proving their fealty to his lies in the name of so-called “election integrity.” Twenty-two of those bills have passed in 14 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

What’s more, Republicans who have worked to counter Trump’s claims of fraud — such as Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming — have been purged from party leadership or been censured by their local parties. The former president’s supporters are pursuing meaningless and unnecessary audits in Arizona and other states. Meanwhile, local GOP lawmakers propose bills that would give the legislature or other partisan actors more control over elections, raising the possibility that they are attempting to lay the groundwork to challenge future elections.

“The naked attempts to make the rules of the game subordinate to partisan goals threatens trust in the entire electoral infrastructure,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Republicans from Georgia to Arizona say the laws are not about giving their own party an advantage but about restoring trust in the electoral system, even though it was Trump’s lies, not any evidence of widespread fraud, that eroded that trust in the first place.

“It’s all about election integrity,” said Ducey, as he signed the Arizona law that could shrink the number of voters who automatically receive absentee ballots in the mail.

It all means Biden and congressional Democrats are facing down a party with an increasingly open anti-democratic drift, and the lawmakers fighting those battles in the states are losing patience with conventional sausage-making or high-minded debates about the need for archaic Senate rules like the filibuster.

“We have to get to a point where there’s enough talking, there’s been enough community meetings, there’s been enough studying,” said Representative Reginald Bolding, Arizona’s House minority leader. “If we don’t stand up for democracy, we have to question: Why did we get into this business at all?”

In Georgia, where Republicans already succeeded in passing a bill that limits access to absentee voting, state Senator Sonya Halpern urged Congress to pass voting rights protections and for Biden to appoint federal judges who will uphold the rule of law.

Even if Democrats were able to pass either of the House voting rights bills, democracy experts believe far larger reforms, such as abolishing the Electoral College entirely by amending the Constitution, would be necessary to fully guard against scenarios where one party is attempting to subvert a state’s election results, as Trump pressured election officials to do in 2020. Legislation to set uniform vote-counting rules, as well as to clarify Congress’ role in certifying elections, would also help shore up the electoral process.

For now, it’s up to activists and lawmakers on the ground to pressure the holdout senators and try to fight Republican restrictions however they can.

Here in Arizona, there are clear signs that Democrats on the ground are frustrated with Sinema for her unwillingness to undo the filibuster.

“They sent the senator to D.C. to stand up for the American people, and I feel there’s a large percentage of the population that feels they’re not being supported right now,” said Bolding. Sinema, a moderate, has said the filibuster promotes “compromise” and coalition building.

Voting rights advocates and lawyers in Florida, where Republicans pushed through a similar set of restrictions to those in Georgia and Arizona, are now working with local elections officials on implementation and launching “Know Your Rights” information campaigns to limit their negative impact on people. Lawsuits also have been filed in hopes that a court will strike down the bulk of the measures, which lawyers and advocates say disproportionally hurt Black voters.

In the final hours of their legislative session, Republicans in Texas sought to pass a bill including such provisions as eliminating drive-thru voting, limiting the hours people could vote, and imposing criminal penalties on voters who wrongly filled out voting forms. Democrats prevented its passage, at least temporarily, by leaving the State House and denying them a quorum.

But the victory could be short-lived if, as is expected, Governor Greg Abbott calls a special session to once more consider legislation that he has cited as a top priority. In anticipation of the move, Democrats and voting rights groups there last week appealed to the White House and Congress to step up.

Texas voting rights lawyers and advocates said the temporary win was only possible in the Republican-controlled state after years of efforts to mobilize multiracial and multiethnic coalitions of voters and volunteers. Throughout the legislative session, groups led protests, gave searing testimonies at the state Capitol, and put pressure on corporations to support voting rights as a way to follow through on the commitments they made to the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.

Tory Gavito, president of Way to Win, a progressive electoral coalition, said the new successes have come as groups in Texas have been able to tap into a national movement. But she said the momentum could not continue without more support from Congress and the White House, which she believed needed to move with more urgency.

“Every day that we don’t have settled a North Star of what our democracy needs and a story about how we get there and why it is important is a day that Republicans are running wild with disinformation around our voting system,” she said.

And in Texas, Republican leaders’ proposed restrictions could hurt Republican voters just as much as they would harm Democratic voters, she added. But so far, that has seemed a risk Republicans are willing to take. “They would rather rig the rules than engage in the marketplace of ideas and govern in a multiracial society,” she said.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.