Democrats Are Running Out of Time

Voting-rights advocates are scared that the White House isn’t taking Republican threats to the ballot seriously enough.

by Ronald Brownstein, The Atlantic

Anxiety is growing among a broad range of civil-rights, democracy-reform, and liberal groups over whether Democrats are responding with enough urgency to the accelerating Republican efforts to both suppress voting and potentially overturn future Democratic election victories.

With the congressional calendar dominated by President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar spending proposals, these activists are expressing concern that neither the administration nor Democratic congressional leaders are raising sufficient alarms about the threats to voting rights proliferating in red states, or developing a strategy to pass the national election standards that these groups consider the party’s best chance to counter those threats.

These worries haven’t yet reached a breaking point: The wide range of activists I spoke with almost uniformly consider Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi personally committed to combatting the red-state offensive. Most of them also expressed cautious, if wavering, optimism that Democrats can still find a way to pass into law at least some election-standards provisions, which are stalled in the Senate, primarily because of resistance from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. And a senior White House official I spoke with insists Biden is focused on the threat, even if the administration doesn’t view it in terms as dire as most liberal groups.

Even so, these activists have become more and more uncertain that Democratic leaders have a strategy to overcome Manchin’s hesitance, not to mention his (and other Democrats’) refusal to pare back the filibuster, which Republicans are certain to employ against any voting-rights legislation. What’s more, these activists fear that by focusing relatively little attention on red states’ actions, Democrats aren’t doing enough to create a climate of public opinion in which Manchin and others could feel pressure to act on the issue of voting rights if and when Senate Republicans filibuster against it.

“From my conversations, I believe they understand” the magnitude of the problem in the White House and the Senate, Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil-rights group Color for Change, told me. But “I have not yet seen it being addressed at the level it needs to be in order for us to deal with the problem.”

In a conference call with reporters last week, Beto O’Rourke, the 2018 Democratic Senate candidate in Texas, didn’t mince words when I asked him whether the White House and Democratic congressional leaders are showing sufficient concern about the GOP’s moves. “The short answer is no,” he told me. He said he’s confident that Biden will eventually speak out more forcefully. But, O’Rourke added, “This is the Voting Rights Act of our time. To pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, President [Lyndon B.] Johnson used all of the political capital he had … We need that level of moral clarity from the president. Bring this country together, and connect the dots for all of us.”

When I spoke with him, Fernand Amandi, a longtime Democratic pollster based in Florida, expressed a level of alarm most activists will share only in private. “I fear that perhaps some Democratic leaders may be suffering from … the idea that this cannot happen here and are bordering on dereliction of duty in not sounding the alarm to the American people and to the community of nations about the existential threat that the Republican Party now presents to American democracy,” said Amandi, whose GOP-controlled home state is one of many that have passed legislation curbing access to the ballot.

White House officials dismiss the idea that Biden is insufficiently concerned about red states’ maneuvers, which have included reducing access to mail balloting and early voting, imposing new voter-identification requirements, purging voters from registration lists, limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, blocking state-court oversight of voting laws, and increasing Republican state officials’ authority to override the decisions of local election officials, many of whom are Democrats. “I can assure people there is no one that worries more about the effect of these things on the 2024 election than the president, who will be running and who went through 2020,” the senior White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, told me. (The official said Biden is planning to deliver a speech to underscore his commitment to voting rights that will likely come within the next few days.)

Still, it’s clear that the White House is operating at a more tempered level of concern than other Democrats about the threats to small-d democracy emerging in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election. Based on my conversations with them, officials there seem to take a more nuanced and restrained view of what’s happening. They do not believe that more assertive public denunciation from Biden would dissuade any of the Republican governors or legislators who have moved to restrict voting rights. And although White House officials consider the laws offensive from a civil-rights perspective, they do not think most of those laws will advantage Republicans in the 2022 and 2024 elections as much as many liberal activists fear.

The senior official noted that the Biden campaign repeatedly adjusted its tactics as the electoral rules changed throughout the 2020 election, and that Biden ultimately won more votes than any president in either party ever has. Looking ahead to 2022 and 2024, “I think our feeling is, show us what the rules are and we will figure out a way to educate our voters and make sure they understand how they can vote and we will get them out to vote,” the official told me. Through on-the-ground organizing, “there are work-arounds to some of these provisions,” said a senior Democrat familiar with White House thinking, who also spoke with me on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Contrast their comments with those of Fred Wertheimer, the president of the reform group Democracy 21 and former president of Common Cause, who told me that Republicans’ actions since Biden’s election constitute “the greatest attack on the democratic process in the 50 years I’ve been working on these issues.” Or with those of Ian Bassin, the executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group studying threats to the electoral system: “I think we are in a far more precarious place just five months later than we were even from November through January. If that trajectory continues, you can see where it’s headed by November 2022 or November 2024.”

The White House does see a risk in the possibility that Republicans—whether local election officials, GOP-controlled state legislatures, or a potential Republican majority in the U.S. House or Senate—will refuse to certify clear Democratic wins in the 2022 and 2024 elections. The senior Democrat told me, “Given how things have developed since January 6, if the situation is not brought under some control and this isn’t countered effectively, then I think there is a significant risk” that “Republican officials, unlike the ones we saw standing up to pressure in 2020, are going to decline to certify Democratic victories.” If Republicans hold the House, Senate, or both after the 2024 election, that could allow Congress to try to install a GOP president even if clear evidence exists that the Democrat won.

The senior White House official told me Biden aides believe that the best way to overcome Republicans’ undermining of upcoming elections is to maintain Democratic control of the House and Senate. And the best way to achieve that is for Biden to pass the agenda he ran on, which includes working to mitigate political conflict and compromising with Republicans where possible. “We have to go win elections in 2022, so we keep control of the House and Senate, which is the single most critical thing to protecting us for 2024,” the official said.

Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic strategist who served as one of Biden’s chief pollsters in the 2020 campaign, seconds the argument that Biden should prioritize producing results, particularly on the economy, over raising alarms. “Right now, that’s not his job,” Lake told me. “His job is to provide the Democratic alternative and to show what we can get done,” so that voters will “say to themselves, ‘I don’t want to lose this; I don’t want to go back’” to Republican control of Congress.

Activists, though, worry that the White House is missing an opportunity to build greater public resistance to the GOP’s moves. Although Biden “does have an obligation as president to do everything he can in his power to unite the country,” Amandi told me, at some point he will need “to look into the mirror, acknowledge the stark existential threat that the Republican Party represents [to democracy], and make the decision about whether or not it’s time to talk turkey with the American people.”

In their private conversations, activists fear that Biden, by constantly stressing his determination to work across party lines, is normalizing Republicans’ behavior even as many in the party are radicalizing. And they worry that he is so focused on producing kitchen-table results—through his big infrastructure and education and families packages—that the voting-rights agenda will slip on the Senate priority list. If necessary, Biden can pass his spending plans through the special budget-reconciliation process that requires only a simple-majority vote. He can’t do that with election-related legislation, and it’s unclear how hard Biden, a longtime Senate institutionalist, will press Manchin, Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and any other Senate Democrats who are reluctant to change the filibuster, the near-certain prerequisite to action on voting.

In fact, the White House already appears to be pessimistic that there is any path to persuading Manchin to support sweeping election legislation in the first place. He’s the only Senate Democrat who has not endorsed the Senate companion bill to H.R. 1. The bill would establish federal standards for voter registration and access to early and mail balloting, prohibit the gerrymandering of congressional districts, and create a public-financing system for elections, among other changes. As an alternative to the Senate bill, Manchin has proposed a new Voting Rights Act that would reinstate the original law’s “preclearance” provision and extend it to every state. (The original requirement, which the Supreme Court eviscerated in its 2013 Shelby County decision, mandated that the federal government had to sign off on changes to voting laws in states with a history of election discrimination.) At best, Manchin might be persuaded to add some of H.R. 1’s provisions ensuring access to registration and voting (like guaranteed days of early voting and universal absentee balloting) to a new VRA, said the senior Democrat familiar with White House officials’ thinking. But given the likelihood of near-total Republican opposition, even passing that would require him to create an exemption to the filibuster—which he has so far adamantly insisted he will not do.

The White House does not appear to have any secret plan to win Manchin over. On this issue, as on so many others, White House officials and other Democratic senators seem to hope that once it becomes clear that Republicans will not cooperate with Democrats on the legislation, Manchin will eventually agree to pass it solely with Democratic votes.  

But no one knows if or when that point will come. Virtually all Democrats and activists I’ve spoken with agree that Manchin is unlikely to move forward on voting rights unless Biden personally persuades him to do so. Which is why, even as they express unease about the flagging Democratic response to the Republican red-state offensive, so many activists are willing to give Biden more time to see whether he can steer new voting protections into law.

“We are dealing with one senator here, and the question is what do you do to persuade Senator Manchin that it is his role to protect, if not save, the democratic process?” Wertheimer told me. “I understand the concerns about President Biden—about his not only not speaking up, but his focus on multiple issues, when this is of overriding significance. But I’m not going to judge at this point what is the best way for Senator Schumer and President Biden to convince Joe Manchin to protect democracy. I don’t know the answer to that.”

The electoral fate of the Democratic Party in 2022 and 2024, and perhaps the fundamental stability of American democracy, may depend on whether Biden or anyone else can find that answer in the months ahead.


Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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