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White House amps up voting-rights push as allies rue GOP crackdown

Vice President Kamala Harris held a listening session about voting rights with Michigan State Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and community advocates in Detroit on Monday.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

The White House is intensifying its effort this week to counteract Republican laws to restrict voting, as Democrats grow increasingly concerned that President Joe Biden has no answer to the GOP-led campaigns in dozens of states.

On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris discussed new, Republican-led bills to curb ballot access with local leaders in Detroit. The next day, Biden is scheduled to deliver a speech on voting rights in Philadelphia. The new campaign comes as two pieces of national legislation that would maintain ballot access are stalled in Congress and as judges as high as the Supreme Court have upheld GOP efforts.


“Fighting for the right to vote is as American as apple pie,” Harris said in Detroit, applauding Democratic state representatives in Texas who said they left the state to prevent Republican bills to restrict voting from passing.

Harris said the Democratic legislators -- who risk arrest for the move, which will deny the state House a quorum -- are “showing extraordinary courage.”

“They are leaders who are marching in the path of so many before them,” she said.

But the Texas lawmakers said Democrats in Washington must pass federal legislation to overrule the state laws, or else Texas Republicans would eventually succeed.

“We are living on borrowed time in Texas,” several leaders of the state House’s Democratic caucus said in a statement.

In the name of election security, Republican lawmakers have passed dozens of new voting restrictions this year, adding hurdles to mail-in voting, reducing local control over elections and targeting innovations used by large urban counties during the coronavirus pandemic. The efforts are inspired by President Donald Trump’s false claims that widespread fraud led to his 2020 defeat.

Biden has asked Harris to lead his administration’s response to the efforts, and she said in a speech at Howard University in Washington on Thursday that the Republican campaign “is all designed, I believe, to make it harder for you to vote so that you don’t vote.”


Harris also announced that the Democratic National Committee would spend $25 million on voter registration, turnout and protection efforts.

Yet Democratic activists and civil rights groups say the administration is leaving the issue in the hands of local organizers and have begun to openly worry that Biden is not aggressively pushing Senate Democrats to pass legislation that would override the state laws. Republicans are unified against the two bills that have passed the House but are blocked in the Senate.

“Everything he has said about voting rights has indicated this is not my priority: ‘Covid is my priority and I’m going to give you a specific bill about Covid. Infrastructure is my priority and I’m going to give you a specific plan about infrastructure. American jobs is my priority and I’m going to give you a specific plan,’” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “And all of that is well and good, but for you to then come to voting rights and say ‘I don’t know what to do, that’s Congress.’”

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden’s speech on Tuesday would be about the moral obligation to preserve the right to vote.

“And I would say that to those who are critics, we stand with you in wanting to make voting more accessible around the country,” Psaki said.


She listed executive actions Biden has taken to address voting rights, including increased funding for the Justice Department to combat voter suppression.

Albright and other activists have urged the White House to pressure moderate Senate Democrats to change the rules so that they don’t need 10 Republican votes required for most legislation. Democrats hold 50 seats in the Senate.

DNC Chair Jaime Harrison said in an interview last week that Democrats’ recent successes in Republican-led Georgia show they can still win without having to get GOP support in the Senate.

“Use Georgia as your example. Did they get rid of the filibuster in Georgia? Did they win lawsuits in Georgia? What did they do in Georgia to win the presidency in Georgia and to buck history to win two Democratic Senate seats in a runoff?” Harrison said. “Well, we did all of that in the face of voter suppression efforts.”

In recent months, Harris has met with voting rights advocates in Greenville, South Carolina, and Atlanta. At the White House, she also hosted a group of Democratic Texas legislators who temporarily blocked legislation restricting ballot access. Harris discussed voting rights with labor leaders in Pittsburgh and she participated in a virtual meeting with civil rights leaders.

In her speech at Howard, a historically Black university and her alma mater, Harris urged people to mobilize and vote in the 2022 midterm elections.

“So with these new laws that have been passed or they’re trying to pass we have to start now to finish strong,” Harris said.


Courts dealt Democrats some recent blows. Last week, a federal judge denied an injunction on Georgia’s new voting law that allows state officials to take over local elections boards, limits the use of ballot drop boxes, shortens the absentee voting window and makes it illegal to approach voters in line to give them food and water.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that Arizona did not violate the Voting Rights Act with its ban on “ballot harvesting” and its practice of rejecting ballots cast in the wrong precinct. The decision builds on a 2013 ruling that wiped out part of the landmark 1965 law.

Civil rights leaders who met with Biden and Harris at the White House last week told reporters that their supporters would demonstrate this summer to heighten the pressure on Washington to pass voting rights legislation.