President Joe Biden has repeatedly called access to the ballot box a “sacred” right from which other rights flow. Democrats in Congress designated voting rights as one of their top issues to address this year.
Now, the year is winding to a close — and no legislation has made its way to Biden’s desk, sparking complaints from activists and reform advocates who say the president is not putting enough muscle into the fight. Some warn that the lack of action is frustrating the Democratic base at a key moment in his presidency, potentially depressing voters who have been told constantly that the right to vote is under attack.
“We started this wave of protests, because we feared that President Biden misunderstood history,” said Ben Jealous, the president of People For the American Way. “He said you just can’t stop voters from voting. It’s just not true.”
“We feel like he has moved on that,” he continued. “The question is does he have the courage to actually stand up for the voters who had his back? Does he have the courage to stand up for our democracy, even as he convenes other nations for his democracy summit?”
Other issues have continued to bump elections and voting rights out of the public consciousness — from grappling with the pandemic to Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law and a sweeping expansion of the social safety net via the reconciliation bill, which is still moving through negotiations in the Senate.
But that means potentially missing the opportunity to strengthen guardrails around reporting and certifying election results that former President Donald Trump tried to break down to hold power after the 2020 election. And it also means the Democratic Party could miss the moment to push other election priorities like expanding early and mail-in voting.
“From Covid to rebuilding the economy, he’s done some important, good work,” Adam Bozzi, an executive vice president at the liberal government-reform group End Citizens United, said of Biden. “But he hasn’t shown the same leadership confronting the crisis of our democracy.”
“That includes having the full force of the administration working on passing this bill,” Bozzi continued, referring to the Freedom to Vote Act, Democrats’ latest proposal on voting rights.
It has been a meandering year of inaction for voting rights activists since Jan. 6 — a day that started with Democrats securing control of the Senate after Georgia’s runoff elections and, hours later, saw supporters of Trump storm the Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential results.
The day crystallized both the opportunity for reform and urgent need for action, activists say. But the push for new federal voting legislation has repeatedly rammed into the reality of a 50-50 Senate and the filibuster rule. Activists have long said that Democrats must choose between the filibuster and passing voting rights legislation, and have increasingly agitated for Biden to speak out more regularly and forcefully on protecting voting rights.
Biden has alluded to the fact that his expansive policy agenda has delayed talks on changing the filibuster for voting rights legislation. At a late October CNN town hall, Biden noted that if he got into a “debate on the filibuster, I lose at least three votes, right now, to get what I have to get done on the economic side of the equation, on the foreign policy side of the equation” — though the president did allow that he was open to “fundamentally altering” it.
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have repeatedly said they are unwilling to ax the filibuster, a seemingly insurmountable barrier for election-related legislation that has failed to garner bipartisan backing.
“Everyone knows where I stand on the filibuster, that hasn’t changed,” Sinema said in a mid-November interview with POLITICO, when asked about the filibuster and voting rights.
She also was cool on any filibuster carve-outs for specific subjects. The Arizona senator noted that she was a co-sponsor of Democrats’ marquee election legislation. “I’m open to co-sponsoring lots of other types of legislation around ensuring that we’re protecting Arizonans’ rights and access to the ballot,” she added. “I think the best way to do that is through regular order.”
Some hope that a more sustained and public pressure campaign from the president would move the pair. “President Biden has deep relationships in the United State Senate,” said Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.). “And we need him to lean on those relationships to make sure that we’re not continuing to allow an archaic procedural rule to get in between Americans and their right to access the ballot.”
Senior White House aides have previously defended the president’s engagement on voting rights, highlighting executive orders he issued directing agencies to find ways to promote voting access. They’ve also cited speeches that he and Vice President Kamala Harris — who was tapped as the administration’s point person on voting rights — gave calling for federal legislative action. And the Department of Justice has put an increased focus on voting rights, suing to block some new state voting laws this year.
White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement that “protecting and advancing the sacred right to vote has been a core priority for the president ever since he was first elected to public office,” and that the president and Harris “are incensed by these anti-voter laws that trample on our constitutional principles based on the Big Lie.”
“He has highlighted voting rights legislation as a must-pass priority and dozens of White House staff across multiple teams work on this issue every single day,” Bates concluded.
Even so, some activists are calling for Biden to more directly confront holdouts who would sustain the filibuster for voting rights. “They are the president and vice president of the country. They have to go to West Virginia … they have to go to Arizona, you have to talk to people in that state,” said Rev. William Barber II, the leader of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“Talk about Donald Trump … I’m not suggesting he ought to be the model for much of anything, but the one thing he would do is put pressure on people that were standing against his agenda publicly,” Barber continued.
Barber said his organization will also lead a “Moral Monday” march on Dec. 13 in Washington, D.C., to call for the passage for voting rights and Biden’s expansive social agenda, and urged the White House to center the voices of voters who will be harmed if legislation is not passed.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a “dear colleague” letter in mid-November that he intended to re-raise voting rights before the end of the year, alluding to Republicans’ previous filibusters of a pair of bills and saying his members were discussing alternative paths for the stalled legislation.
“Just because Republicans will not join us doesn’t mean Democrats should stop fighting,” he wrote. “This is too important. Even if it means going at it alone, we will continue to fight for voting rights and work to find an alternative path forward to defend the most fundamental liberty we have as citizens.”
But Schumer also listed several other marquee legislative items that need attention as well: negotiations over Biden’s social spending agenda, funding the government, raising the debt ceiling and passing the National Defense Authorization Act.
“I ask that you please keep your schedule flexible for the remainder of the calendar year,” Schumer wrote in his letter. “I am confident we can get each of these important items done this year, but it will likely take some long nights and weekends.”
Williams, who is also the Georgia Democratic Party chair, said that voting rights should have been among the first things Congress took up, matching its symbolic numbering of the legislation with where it actually fell on the agenda.
“We needed this done when this Congress first started, and that should have been priority number one in this administration,” she said. “Because regardless of the other policy ideas that you care about in this country,” she continued, ticking off climate change and reproductive rights, “you care about free and fair access to the ballot.”
Kendra Cotton, the chief operating officer of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, said that the damage from Congress not doing so was apparent in her home state, citing a law passed earlier this year that added new restrictions to voting and a proposed congressional map that will squeeze Democrats out of a House seat in a state Biden narrowly won in 2020.
“The lack of passage [of federal legislation] is effectively a tax, if you will, on the people that are actually fighting on the front lines,” she said. “Because what’s occurring is it’s forcing us to expend resources that we could use to actually educate voters [or] run our [get out the vote] programs, and we’re actually having to expend those resources on trying to keep these issues in front of our electorate.”
She added that not passing legislation could also demotivate voters of color. “This idea that you can just tell people of color and come to them and say, ‘Hey, we just need more of you to get out,’ … but say that ‘these laws are on the back burner, and we’ll get to it when we can’ — that’s unacceptable.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.