The appointment of Vice President Kamala Harris
to lead the White House
’s voting rights
initiative has given advocates renewed hope that the Biden administration
will wage political war against Republican restrictions across the country, even as they acknowledge that the path to federal-level legislation protecting the franchise remains difficult.
Harris, who applied for the job and discussed its parameters with President Joe Biden
over the past month, is expected to focus on gaining outside support for voting rights, including by enlisting the help of corporations, as much as she will on wooing the few congressional Democrats
who remain hesitant to pass the party's broad-ranging democracy
reform bill, H.R. 1, or a revitalizaton bill.
“This is not just a federal government approach,” said a White House aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Harris’ plans, which are unlikely to be finalized until she returns from her first foreign trip as vice president next week. “There’s a lot of work
to be done at the state level.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Republicans
have introduced more than 300 pieces of legislation aimed at limiting voting rights in more than 40 states
, inspired by former President Donald Trump
's escalation of long-standing GOP
lies about widespread voter fraud.
These laws have frequently targeted Black voters
or those living in major metropolitan areas, and they have frequently given state legislators far more power to overturn election
results something Trump urged Republicans to do after his clear loss to Biden last November.
Activists who have been fighting those efforts see Harris as a necessary and critical political cavalry, and many are hopeful that she will work with Kristen Clarke
, the newly confirmed assistant attorney general for civil rights
, to bring the federal government fully into the fray.
“We’ve been playing whack-a-mole filing lawsuits or being parties to lawsuits across the landscape,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the national NAACP
. “There is no way, given the rapid pace at which legislative bodies are attempting to suppress the Black vote, that we will be able to keep up all our efforts without support from this administration and the federal government stepping in a big way.”
Harris spoke to both Johnson, a prominent activist and civil rights leader, and Senate
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
(D-N.Y.), who will be her most important ally in her efforts to woo Democratic
Senators Kyrsten Sinema
and Joe Manchin
of West Virginia
The most immediate effect of Harris' appointment was to reassure voting rights activists and government reformers of the administration's commitment to a full-fledged effort to pass H.R. 1 and the Voting Rights Act as president. While Biden has repeatedly stated his support for voting rights as president, some have seen him as less focused on these issues than some of his rivals in the 2020 Democratic Primaries.
“They’ve been saying all the right things, but they could flex their muscle a little more,” said one Democratic strategist directly involved in the effort to pass a new voting rights act and H.R. 1, who requested anonymity to discuss intra-party dynamics.
The choice of Harris to lead Biden's voting rights efforts is also viewed favorably on Capitol
Hill, where Democrats had hoped for more active White House involvement.
“It’s a valuable sign that the White House determined that the vice president is the point person,” a senior Senate staffer said, adding, “And, not for nothing, she’s a multiracial woman who went to an HBCU
who can speak on a personal level about what the fight for voting rights has meant historically.”
With little chance of swaying Republicans, passage of the For The People Act
is dependent on Manchin and Sinema's whims and interests.
Manchin is the lone Democrat who does not co-sponsor the bill; he initially issued a statement of support for elements of the bill, declaring that he intended to find bipartisan support because he believed Republicans would agree to certain aspects of the bill in good faith; however, after the bill failed to receive any Republican votes
in committee, he declared that he no longer supported the bill.
Schumer intends to bring the bill to the Senate floor the week of June 21. To do so, all 50 Democrats will need to vote to discharge from committee after the Senate Rules Committee deadlocked in a 9-9 vote on party lines, which means they will need Manchin's support. However, the senator has not indicated what would be required from his own party to obtain his support in bringing the bill to the floor.
Even if the bill is discharged from committee and brought to the floor, it will face a Republican filibuster. The only way the bill can pass, whether as it is now or in a slimmed-down form, is if Democrats change the Senate's filibuster rules, which both Manchin and Sinema have stated they are unwilling to do.
A White House campaign to pass the bill, in the midst of an onslaught of Republican filibusters, would increase pressure on filibuster reform
holdouts to toe the party line. Some voting rights advocates hoped Harris would visit Sinema and Manchin's home states to build pressure.
Nse Ufot, CEO
of the New Georgia
Project, advocated for Harris to visit lawmakers' home states, such as Sinema and Manchin's, because it would "take the fight to them."
“It’s working to recruit their donors, their voters, and making the case in their local papers and in their backyards about why this has to happen and why their senators need to show up for American democracy at this time,” Ufot added.
However, Harris is unlikely to spend the majority of her time courting Manchin or Sinema, neither of whom she is particularly close to. Manchin famously reacted angrily when the administration sent Harris to West Virginia for media appearances without first informing him.
According to a White House aide, Harris will attempt to enlist corporations in the fight to protect voting rights.
“We saw how powerful corporations holding the state accountable can be,” the aide said, citing corporations in Georgia that spoke out against GOP legislation. “That’s going to be huge in this fight.”
Ufot stated that such an approach, enlisting nearly all of civil society to fight for voting rights and democracy, was required to counteract the GOP's efforts.
“We’re talking about the press. We’re talking about corporations. We’re talking about activists and organizers, civil rights groups. We’re talking about state elected officials. We’re talking about the federal administration,” she said.
Travis Waldron provided reporting assistance.