Biden’s Voting Rights Push: Insiders Reveal What Went Wrong

WASHINGTON — In mid-November, Vice President Kamala Harris joined a video call with a coalition of nearly 250 groups trying to pass new legislation to protect the right to vote and prevent future election sabotage attempts like what happened after the 2020 election. The participants on the call included the heads of major labor unions, civil-rights leaders, and other influential activists who had supported the Biden-Harris ticket in 2020 and would no doubt be called upon to help reelect that ticket in 2024.

The voting-reform campaign had reached a critical moment. State legislatures led by Republicans had passed dozens of new bills that would make it harder to vote and empower partisan operatives to exert more control over ballot counting and election administration. Democrats in Congress and liberal outside groups, meanwhile, had pinned their hopes on passing two sweeping pieces of legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, to counter the GOP assault on voting rights.

But if the allies on that November call had expected a rousing speech or valuable insight into the White House’s strategy on voting rights, they left the call disappointed. Harris’s speech included no specifics; she rattled off statistics well-known to everyone on the call about the wave of state-level Republican voting bills; and at one point, she mentioned “inside-outside” organizing as if it were a novel concept in a meeting of organizations that spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars on organizing strategy. Harris, who was leading the White House’s voting-rights push, summed up her efforts so far by saying that she said she’d held “many, many meetings on voting rights.”

Six minutes and 51 seconds later — an irritated participant timed it — Harris thanked the group and logged off. Several participants on the call say they were surprised by how brief and uninspiring Harris’ appearance was. Even if she chose not to share the White House’s own thinking for how to pass new voting-rights legislation, she could’ve used the time to galvanize organizations that had been working non-stop to pass the bills. “It was a chance to fire up the groups that are fighting for this and show a real commitment,” says one participant on the call who asked for anonymity to avoid further fraying relationships with the White House. “The end result was deflating.”

The source added, “It wasn’t necessarily the quantity of the time; it was the quality of the messages to the groups that are killing themselves to pass these bills.”

Harris’ appearance was emblematic of a White House that, as critics see it, was disengaged for far too long in the fight to pass voting-rights legislation. In fairness, the voting bills put forward by Democrats were always going to be a long-shot: Republicans stood in lockstep opposition to expanding the right to vote, and all 50 Senate Democrats needed to agree to not only support the bills but to weaken the filibuster in order to proceed to a vote.

Still, Biden had campaigned on his experience as a senator and his ability to negotiate with GOP members. Instead, activists and allies say, Biden and Harris prioritized their Build Back Better economic package at the expense of two major voting and democracy-reform bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Now, as those bills face an all but certain demise in the Senate, disillusioned allies  of the Biden White House say the president reneged on a key campaign promise and has made it that much harder for Democrats to mobilize voters and win in this year’s midterm elections.

“We were (knocking) on those doors in 2020 and we told people, ‘If you do X, bring home the presidency, bring home the Senate races, your life will be fundamentally different in a positive way,’ ” says Kendra Cotton of the New Georgia Project. “Now, we’ll be asking those people to vote with us again, and some of them aren’t gonna do it. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But because we don’t have any real policy outcome to point to, some of those folks are gonna call all this a lie.”

Rolling Stone interviewed 17 people in recent weeks who have played central roles in the campaign to secure new voting protections in Congress. These sources include civil-rights leaders, voting-rights activists, members of Congress, and political organizers in Washington, D.C., and in multiple states. Several of them spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of private White House discussions and internal deliberations at their own organization.

Spokespeople for President Biden and Vice President Harris declined to comment on the record for this story.

Black voters, who have long borne the brunt of discriminatory voting policies and been the target of suppression tactics by the Republican Party, rescued Biden’s struggling campaign when they turned out en masse in South Carolina in early 2020 and delivered him the state’s primary. Black voters continued to support Biden as he built on his South Carolina victory and went on to secure the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

In a July 2020 speech, Biden said he would make voting rights a top priority of his administration if he defeated Donald Trump. John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil-rights leader, had just died, and Biden said there was no better way to honor Lewis than to pass new voting protections. “One thing the Senate and the president can do right away is pass, right away, pass the bill to restore the Voting Rights Act,” he said. “You know, back the effusive praise we’ve heard since [Lewis] passed —  especially from our Republican friends — back it with some action. Protect that sacred right to vote that he was willing to die for. If they don’t, I’ve been saying all along, it’s one of the first things I’ll do as president if elected.”

Practically speaking, Democrats stood little chance of passing a sweeping new voting-rights bill, a Voting Rights Act 2.0, without control of the U.S. House and Senate. It wasn’t until Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock won a pair of run-off elections in Georgia on January 5, 2021, that the calculus for the Democrats changed. They would now control the Senate by the thinnest margin possible — 50-50 with Vice President Harris casting the decisive 51st vote.

There was now a path to passing new voting legislation. It was narrow: Not only would all 50 Democrats need to vote yes, but they’d need to agree to change the rules of the filibuster first, the tactic that allows the minority party to block non-fiscal and budgetary bills. But what had been considered unimaginable under a GOP-held Senate was now barely possible.

Some activists and legal scholars say they believe the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021, made the need for voting rights legislation and new protections for the electoral process more urgent. Perhaps, they say, the shock and horror expressed by Democrats and Republicans could’ve been translated into securing 60 votes for a bill to shore up the electoral process. “If this had been priority number one, the first thing the administration was tackling post-January 6, that moment was a prime opportunity and maybe you could’ve had a Murkowski and Romney and Collins coming on over,” says Kendra Cotton of the New Georgia Project.

After Biden took office later in January, he and his administration focused first on pandemic relief efforts: producing and distributing vaccines, strategizing about how to reopen schools, combating unemployment, and bolstering the economy. Voting-rights groups say they couldn’t fault the White House for its early fixation on a pandemic that was killing hundreds of Americans every day.

In March 2021, at his first official press conference, Biden condemned the dozens of bills introduced by state-level Republicans to curb voting access as “sick” and “un-American.” Biden signed several executive orders on voting rights, and his administration appointed lawyers with impressive records on the issue to key positions at the Justice Department. But as spring became summer, the pressure began to build on Biden to take a bigger role in the voting-rights fight.

In July, Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network and a host on MSNBC, says he and seven other civil-rights leaders met with Biden and pleaded with him to “use the bully pulpit” on voting rights. Soon afterward, Biden traveled to Philadelphia and gave his most forceful speech yet. “The 21st century Jim Crow assault is real,” he said. “It’s unrelenting, and we’re going to challenge it vigorously.”

Yet the lawyers, activists, and lobbyists pressing for a new voting-rights bill — especially the Democrats’ original legislation known as For the People Act — say they saw Biden and Harris’ public message undercut by anonymous quotes coming out of the White House. The Washington Post reported that “some White House officials do not adopt the do-or-die tone that many Democrats use when they talk about the For the People Act, the party’s premier voting bill. One senior White House official working on voting rights said that even if that bill took effect, Republican legislatures would find workarounds.” The Associated Press, also citing unnamed Biden aides, wrote that the while White House hadn’t given up on voting-rights legislation, “the West Wing has been shifting focus to other measures to protect the vote, including legal remedies pursued by the Department of Justice and in individual states, according to the officials.”

In July, Harris, who asked to take charge of the White House’s voting-rights portfolio, gave her first major speech on the subject as vice president. She announced a $25 million investment in the Democratic National Committee to improve “the tools and technology to register voters, to educate voters, to turn out voters, to protect voters,” she said. When people asked what the Democratic Party’s strategy was for countering the wave of GOP voter suppression bills, she added: “Well, I just outlined it.”

Voting and civil-rights groups say they were alarmed by the White House’s apparent belief that it could essentially “out-organize” Republicans who were making it harder to vote. White House aides conveyed this message in private meetings as well. The growing rift between the White House and outside groups burst into the open with a public letter signed by 150 civil-rights groups demanding the White House support the bills pending in Congress — a rare display of public pressure from groups closely allied with the Biden administration.

It wasn’t enough, these groups said, to rely on Justice Department lawsuits and party organizing efforts to respond to what Republicans were doing in the states. “We cannot litigate our way out of this and we cannot organize our way out of this,”  Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the New York Times.

Some of the same groups urged Biden to come out in support of changing the filibuster so that new voting-rights legislation could pass with only 50 votes. Despite the efforts of moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to find GOP votes, Senate Republicans displayed no interest in supporting the Democrats’ bills. Jesselyn McCurdy, executive vice president for government affairs at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, says allied groups contacted 16 different Republican senators for a meeting about voting rights in the summer of 2021. Not a single Republican senator would agree to a meeting.

But the White House, rather than launching a major push to pass voting rights, decided to concentrate its efforts on passing the Build Back Better Act, a multi-trillion-dollar package of economic, climate, and social spending programs. Build Back Better was the centerpiece of Biden’s policy agenda and, better yet, could pass with 50 votes under Senate rules. As negotiations between the White House and moderate Democrats dragged on into the fall of 2021, voting-rights legislation remained in the background. In a private White House meeting, Biden vowed to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that he would pressure moderates Manchin and Sinema to vote in favor of filibuster reform in order to pass a voting-rights bill. But the White House was much more keen to get those two moderate senators onboard with BBB than anything related to voting.

Activists and organizers who spoke with Rolling Stone say they felt like they were stuck in line behind Build Back Better, waiting for a resolution on that bill before they could have their moment. “For a long time there was no engagement” from the White House, Fred Wertheimer, president of the government-reform group Democracy 21, told Rolling Stone in September.

A member of Congress who’s worked on voting rights tells Rolling Stone: “Sure, the White House could’ve engaged more forcefully.”

After Manchin stalled the negotiations over Build Back Better in December, the White House finally turned its attention to voting rights. Biden told ABC News that he supported changing the filibuster to pass a voting bill. Last week, he traveled to Atlanta and delivered yet another fiery speech.

Activists and lobbyists say they welcomed the renewed emphasis from the White House, while also fearing it was too little, too late. “I think that Biden should’ve come (to Atlanta) earlier,” Sharpton says. “His statement was strong. I just wish he’d made it five months ago.”

Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, echoed that sentiment. “I wish the push we’d seen this prior week had happened earlier in the administration,” he said. “But we’re here now. As opposed to talking about what didn’t happen, let’s talk about how to get the best outcome.”

As of now, there is no path to passage for Democrats on their major voting-rights bills. After months of lobbying and an outside pressure campaign costing tens of millions of dollars, Sens. Manchin and Sinema remain firm in their opposition to changing the filibuster. Democrats remain insistent that they want to bring their legislation to the floor, hold a debate, and try to use that debate to convince Manchin and Sinema to change their minds.

Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, says Democrats should force Manchin, Sinema, and Senate Republicans to defend their support of the filibuster on the floor, in a public debate for everyone to see. “Talk is cheap,” he says. “Force them to debate the bill. And then force them to vote on the (filibuster) rules changes and see where it comes down.”

Leader Chuck Schumer says that debate is scheduled for this week. Democratic senators say they want that debate to happen even if they don’t see much of a chance to change the rules and pass the bill. “There’s a little flickering flame,” says Sen Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “But I don’t know if it’s gonna survive and grow into the bright light we need next week.”

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