Biden administration looks for voting rights path around Congress

Despite such efforts, advocates say legislation is still needed

Vice President Kamala Harris announced Thursday an expansion of the Democratic National Committee’s “I Will Vote” campaign, one of a series of programs meant to  emphasize voter protection and turnout.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Vice President Kamala Harris announced Thursday an expansion of the Democratic National Committee’s “I Will Vote” campaign, one of a series of programs meant to emphasize voter protection and turnout. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 9, 2021 at 3:44pm

The Biden administration is looking for ways to act on voting rights amid activist pressure to address election law changes in Republican states and with no clear path to federal legislation given GOP opposition.

Vice President Kamala Harris announced Thursday a $25 million expansion of the Democratic National Committee’s “I Will Vote” campaign in one of a series of events emphasizing voter protection and turnout. President Joe Biden held a separate meeting with civil rights groups Thursday on countering a wave of election legislation from Republican-controlled states.

“We are going to assemble the largest voter protection team we have ever had to ensure that all Americans can vote, and have your vote counted in a fair and transparent process, and again, want to make clear that this is about all voters,” Harris said.

Last month, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit alleging Georgia’s new voting changes violated the Voting Rights Act.

Harris’ remarks came the same day the Texas Legislature started a special session. Gov. Greg Abbott has pushed legislators to pass more election legislation.

Advocacy groups stepped up pressure on the Biden administration and moderate Democrats to pass national elections or Voting Rights Act legislation as Texas and other states mull more election law changes. 

Democrats’ first effort at elections legislation, HR 1, passed the House in March before falling short of the Senate’s filibuster threshold in a 50-50 vote last month. The House Administration and Judiciary committees are also working on a narrower bill focused on the Voting Rights Act slated for a House vote in the fall — but without a plan to get it over the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate.

At a news conference Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is trying to address concerns about ballot access even if it cannot get legislation through Congress.

“So certainly, the president would love to sign a piece of voting rights legislation into law. He looks forward to doing that. But he also knows that there are a number of levers from the federal government that we should continue to use, and he’s not waiting to have the legislation on his desk,” Psaki said. 

Democrats have advocated a new Voting Rights Act since a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, invalidated the law’s preclearance provisions subjecting certain states to Justice Department oversight of election law changes. 

The Supreme Court decided last week, in Brnovich v. DNC, to curtail the scope of what could be considered a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Center, said the court’s decision makes it harder to prove a case of discrimination under the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2. 

Brandon said that unless Congress updates the Voting Rights Act to reinstate Justice Department preclearance of election changes, it could have a major impact on redistricting. The 2013 Supreme Court decision tossing out preclearance invalidated the specific formula in the law, not the underlying preclearance mechanism.

“Section 5 kept dozens of these bad bills or laws from either being implemented or in many cases even being passed, because [states] knew they were going to be blocked,” Brandon said. 

Pressure building

Despite the administration’s efforts to act without legislation, advocates of voting rights say Congress has to be involved.

Groups such as the Battle Born Collective and Common Cause have pushed Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to back changes to Senate rules — even blaming them for the failure to pass legislation.

Battle Born Collective Executive Director Adam Jentleson criticized Sinema for a “complicity in gutting the right to vote in America,” after the Supreme Court decision last week. 

Texas state Rep. Art Fierro, a Democrat, told reporters on a call Wednesday that congressional intervention may be needed to change the election rules that the state is expected to pass. 

“We’ve got to have the help of Washington. Washington has to come to the rescue of not only Texas, but the rest of the United States that are passing these horrible bills. And if they don’t move faster, it’s going to be horrible for us as a country when it comes to voting rights,” Fierro said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has so far held his party in line on major policy votes, told reporters last month he sees “no threat” to the Voting Rights Act.

“It’s against the law to discriminate in voting on the basis of race already, and so I think it’s unnecessary,” McConnell said.

Critics of the states’ new voting laws say they are designed to discourage minority voters from participating in elections. 

McConnell has considerable support among Republicans. At a House Administration Committee hearing over voting rights issues last month, Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., criticized the “ridiculous rhetoric, disinformation and scare tactics” Democrats have used over voting issues.

“It’s all part of an effort to convince the American people that the laws being passed by states are so racist or suppressive that the only option is for the great, benevolent federal government to take over,” Steil said.

Similarly, conservative groups such as True the Vote, an advocacy group formed after the 2008 election in Texas, have praised the Supreme Court’s decisions on the Voting Rights Act. The group also called last week on the Arizona secretary of state to resign for backing the effort to overturn the state law at the center of the high court’s decision. 

Following the Supreme Court decision last week, House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Chairman Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., released a joint statement pushing for the advancement of the voting rights bill.

“Congress must act where the Court has failed voters across the country. The House Judiciary Committee will expeditiously complete its work on an updated John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and move to bring legislation to the House floor as quickly as possible,” Cohen and Nadler said, referring to a bill named for the late member of Congress from Georgia and a leader of civil rights marches during the Jim Crow era in the South. 

Both panels held a series of hearings over the spring, and the panel intends to introduce the bill in the next few weeks before a vote by the fall.

One of the bill’s primary contributors, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said he hopes Manchin and others in the Senate might be able to find a compromise for both pieces of legislation: HR 1 and the yet-to-be-introduced legislation named for Lewis. That might help in a bit of mutual disarmament in electoral rule-making and redistricting, he said. 

“Not only are racial minorities being discriminated against, but political minorities as well,” Butterfield said. “If you’re a Democrat in a red state, your vote is being diluted. If you are Republican in a Democratic state and the legislature goes to excesses in drawing lines, then your vote is being diluted.”