Biden speech backing voting rights bill is what activists needed. Why are they boycotting?

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On Tuesday afternoon, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Atlanta to mobilize the Democratic Party behind the single most important policy challenge it faces: stopping the Republican Party’s war on voting rights.

As Democrats seek to shake off a challenging 2021 that saw the party fighting among its own members as much as with recalcitrant Republicans, the party needs to come together.

Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced an ambitious plan to pass voting rights protections by Jan. 17 — less than a week after Biden’s trip. Schumer will attempt to enact a package combining the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s Freedom to Vote Act. With Republicans guaranteed to oppose that measure, Schumer is expected to offer a rule change to suspend the filibuster, which lowers the threshold for passing legislation from 60 votes to a bare majority of 51.

Both bills are boosted by unanimous support from Senate Democrats. Though Manchin, of West Virginia, and fellow conservative Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, haven’t committed to backing the voting rights-specific filibuster exemption, they are expressing none of their usual vocal opposition. So after a year of demoralizing setbacks, Democrats finally have the opportunity to match their actions on voting rights to their soaring 2020 campaign rhetoric.

“We call on Congress to get done what history will judge: pass the Freedom to Vote Act,” Biden said Tuesday. “Pass it now, so that here in Georgia, there’s full access to voting by mail, there are enough drop boxes, you can bring food and water to people waiting in line.”

He added: “I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend the right to vote.”

But a number of voting rights organizations weren’t there to hear him say those words. Instead, they publicly boycotted Biden’s speech out of frustration that he’s doing too little, too late. Biden does deserve criticism for his slow walk to this moment, but all the evidence points to a Democratic Party that is finally ready to make its stand for voting rights. That means it’s inexplicable to try to humiliate Biden at the moment he’s finally embracing the action we need — and deflate the unifying energy this historic accomplishment should provide a fraying party.

To review, Senate Democrats have spent the past six months attempting to pass voting rights legislation only to have Republican opposition doom their efforts. In October, Republicans launched a filibuster that killed debate on the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that would have expanded voting rights, reformed campaign finance laws, banned partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts and created new ethics rules for federal public servants.

A month later, the GOP blocked a debate on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore and strengthen portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act stripped out by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority in Shelby County v. Holder. And in October, Republicans unanimously killed consideration of Manchin’s smaller Freedom to Vote Act, which would expand early and mail-in voting, offer a national standard for voter identification and make Election Day a federal holiday.

Many progressives — myself included — spent last year sharply criticizing Biden and Senate Democrats for their unwillingness to force the issue by ending the filibuster. And with the White House limited to executive orders like one Biden signed in March to promote voting access, activists were left wondering if securing voting rights really was a Democratic priority.

Now, at last, the party is ready to listen. And more importantly, the White House is ready to fight more aggressively than it has at any point in Biden’s presidency to date.

“Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” Biden challenged senators during his speech. “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? This is the moment to decide.”

So why are progressive groups still burying the White House in criticism?

“We don’t need even more photo ops,” Black Voters Matter co-founder Cliff Albright told reporters Monday. “We need action, and that action is in the form of the John Lewis Voting Rights (Advancement) Act as well as the Freedom to Vote Act, and we need that immediately.”

But it’s unclear how much faster Albright and other voting rights activists expect Schumer and the Senate to move. For all the foot-dragging around election and voter protection that characterized Biden’s first year in office, Schumer’s current plan puts a bill on Biden’s desk before the end of January. And even if disappointingly late, a strong voting rights package would have a strong and immediate positive effect on the health of America’s ailing democracy.

“If the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis VRAA are enacted soon, there will still be time to put in place the rules we need to protect voting rights for the 2022 midterms and stop extreme partisan gerrymanders,” Daniel Weiner, director for elections and government at the Brennan Center for Justice, said. “The longer Congress waits, the harder it will be to ensure the 2022 midterms are free and fair.”

Groups like Black Voters Matter are right to feel a sense of betrayal at a president who in his 2020 victory speech boldly pledged to have Black voters’ backs on tough fights like safeguarding voting rights only for the issue to fall from public conversation for much of 2021.

Indeed, the past year has been a bleak one for voting rights and fair elections more broadly: Republican legislatures have successfully restricted the right to cast a ballot in 19 states. And in GOP-led Tennessee, Republicans are busy carving up the Democratic stronghold of Nashville to ensure that when Democrats are allowed to vote, their votes are cast in districts stacked heavily toward Republicans. Those states offer Republicans a workable blueprint for manufacturing a House majority even if they strangle free and fair elections in the process.

But it’s better to overcome these setbacks than to magnify them, and with this latest push, Biden is trying to rebuild that bridge to a critical base of voters. As Democrats seek to shake off a challenging 2021 that saw the party fighting among its own members as much as with recalcitrant Republicans, the party needs to come together now more than ever.

Moments of meaningful party unity are still vanishingly rare: Biden’s signature Build Back Better agenda looks more imperiled than ever, while progressives led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., are increasingly frustrated with federal inaction on key priorities like climate and social spending. Voting rights offers Democrats a unifying issue that positions them positively against the increasingly antidemocratic whims of a GOP caught in the whirlpool of former President Donald Trump’s election fraud “big lie.”

If Democrats want to make good on their best chance to address voting rights before the 2022 midterm elections, they’ll need to move past last year’s disappointments and speak with one voice.

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