Holiday break came for the U.S. Senate without passage of the Build Back Better Act or action on voting rights. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has finally found his voice regarding voting rights and the ever-present threat to Democracy, but it might be too little.
Speaking at South Carolina State University’s commencement, a fired-up Biden talked about how a once bipartisan process has become a contentious, polarizing battle.
“I’ve never seen anything like the unrelenting assault on the right to vote,” Biden said. “Folks, I was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for a long time. At the end of my stint, before I became Vice President, I was able to pass the extension of the Voting Rights Act for 25 years — and guess what? — and convinced Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to vote for it.”
Biden has been reluctant to heed calls to pressure the Senate regarding the filibuster. But it seems the president may finally be ready to move past his nostalgia of a long-gone era of bipartisan support for something as simple as the right to vote.
For its part, the Senate has been unable to even discuss voting rights legislation due to the filibuster. Republicans have refused to engage in the conversation as their counterparts at the state level enact legislation in rapid succession to dilute the voting power displayed in the 2020 election cycle.
An analysis from RepresentUs outlined the specific policies within the Freedom to Vote Act that would protect American Democracy, including a ban on partisan gerrymandering, a guarantee for public input in redistricting, providing states with funding for programs to alleviate polarization, and increasing transparency in the campaign finance system. The legislation also includes various measures to tackle voter suppression, including providing for no-excuse absentee ballots, same-day voter registration, clear standards for challenging voter registration and dropbox availability.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund also highlighted the benefits of pending legislation pointing to six key provisions, including preventing voter intimidation, curb polling site closures and improve accessibility for voters with disabilities.
Hundreds of bills have been introduced across the country based on the big lie. Biden even announced he was tasking Vice President Kamala Harris with taking the lead on voting rights. Still, it’s unclear what the White House authorized her to do besides meet with voting rights groups.
The president needed to show leadership on this issue months ago and do more than the bare minimum. But his comments Friday reflect a significant turn from early remarks such as telling people they will have to out-organize voter suppression yet again.
“But this battle is not over,” Biden said. “We must pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.”
Voting rights advocates, civic engagement organizations, and democracy organizers have had little rest this year, moving almost immediately from an extended 2020 election cycle into the year-long battle to save Democracy. Passing both bills has been a priority closing gaps left after the gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and ensuring reflective representation in the redistricting process.
Since earlier this year, there have been countless calls to action and protests. In June, Black Voters Matter and several partner organizations recreated a Freedom Ride from the south to Washington, D.C.
Over 80 national and grassroots groups joined Martin Luther King III in a renewed call to action around voting rights legislation. The groups will convene in a massive mobilization effort around the King holiday weekend.
“President Biden and Congress used their political muscle to deliver a vital infrastructure deal, and now we are calling on them to do the same to restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure,” said Martin Luther King III, Chairman of the Drum Major Institute. “Like those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, we will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream for a more equal and just America.”
According to reports, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is the major holdout on the idea of a voting rights exception to the filibuster. Surprisingly, Sen. Joe Manchin favors a carve-out, despite being a stickler on needed benefits for families under the Build Back Better Act. He worked with Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Raphael Warnock on the Freedom to Vote Act, compromise legislation that took the place of the For the People Act.
The House has already done its part, passing both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Advocates continue to push the Senate, even asking people to contact their Senators and demand that voting rights are prioritized.
Taifa Smith Butler, president of the progressive “think and do” tank Dēmos, said the country couldn’t care more about roads and bridges than people calling on Senators to prioritize both the Build Back Better Agenda and pending voting rights legislations.
“We need Congress to pass the Build Back Better Act to give people a fair shot in our economy and to approve the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to honor every American’s right to participate in our democracy,” Butler said. “With dozens of laws aimed at making it harder for Black and brown Americans to vote enacted in the last year alone, the stakes are too high for this country to ignore the threat before us. Just as lawmakers took action to repair America’s broken infrastructure, members of Congress must fulfill their duty to repair our broken Democracy.”