Vice President Kamala Harris has been assigned a Herculean task: Protect the right to vote from an onslaught of GOP-backed restrictions.
States have already enacted a record number of voting restrictions this year, and more are sure to come. Dozens of such measures, largely pushed by Republicans, continue to advance in statehouses across the country.
Voting rights advocates say the way to protect states from these new voting barriers is to pass significant legislation at the federal level, such as the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But as long the filibuster rule remains intact, these bills are essentially dead on arrival in the Senate.
After being tapped to take on voting rights, Harris said in a statement that she will work with Congress to advance the two major reform bills.
"President Joe Biden asked me to help lead our Administration's effort to protect the fundamental right to vote for all Americans," Harris said. "In the days and weeks ahead, I will engage the American people, and I will work with voting rights organizations, community organizations, and the private sector to help strengthen and uplift efforts on voting rights nationwide."
The House version of the For the People Act was passed by Democrats in March and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced last week that he would put the sweeping democracy reform legislation up for a vote at the end of June. But Republicans are planning to filibuster the bill, meaning 60 votes would be required to end debate and pass the bill. In the 50-50 Senate, where every Democrat except Joe Manchin of West Virginia has cosponsored the legislation, that's a near impossibility.
With Harris now at the helm of the national voting rights effort and pressure mounting from state legislatures, the call from reform advocates to end the Senate filibuster grows louder every day.
Eliminating the filibuster would lower the voting threshold to a simple majority and give the For the People Act better odds of passing along party lines, with Harris as the tie-breaking vote. Even that may not be possible because Manchin and Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema have said they oppose scrapping the filibuster and Manchin wants any reform legislation to be bipartisan.
Recent events at the Capitol and across the country have turned up the heat on Democrats to toss out the filibuster. Last week, a bill supporting an independent investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection failed to pass in the Senate, despite garnering bipartisan support. And over the weekend, Democratic state lawmakers in Texas protested a vote on a restrictive election measure, but the threat of it passing in a special session remains.
A coalition of more than 120 self-styled "scholars of democracy" penned a letter Tuesday urging immediate federal action to protect American democracy from the litany of GOP-backed restrictive voting bills. The signatories include political science and government professors from universities such as Stanford, Harvard and Cornell.
"We have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures in response to unproven and intentionally destructive allegations of a stolen election," the scholars wrote. "Collectively, these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections."
The scholars implore Congress to do "whatever is necessary — including suspending the filibuster — in order to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want."
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So-called dark money organizations typically play to the extremes in politics, but one group is trying to build support in the center for its legislative priorities.
WorkMoney, a liberal political advocacy nonprofit, is trying to boost President Biden's multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and jobs agenda. It is spending $2 million on Facebook and Google ads to corral moderate Democrats and Republicans in the evenly divided Senate.
The group is one example of a dark money organization — a politically active nonprofit that is not required to disclose its donors and takes advantage of that leniency. Corporations, individuals and unions may make unlimited donations to such groups, increasing their influence over elections without any accompanying transparency.
WorkMoney describes itself as an organization "dedicated to lowering costs and raising incomes for all Americans, making American life more affordable and American families economically secure." The dark money group was created last year at the height of the pandemic.
CJ Grimes, a long-time union organizer who formed WorkMoney, told CNBC that her group has raised $20 million since its founding. According to the Facebook Ad Library, WorkMoney has spent more than $5 million for paid positions on the social media platform. And during the 2020 election, WorkMoney spent more than $230,000 supporting the campaigns of Biden and Georgia's new Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, per filings with the Federal Election Commission.
The ads running on Facebook encourage viewers to "stand up for American jobs" and contact their elected officials. After clicking on the ad, viewers are taken to a separate website where they can "sign the petition" supporting the infrastructure legislation.
"Many in Congress are hearing from special interests, pushing to cut the parts of this plan that could really get our economy going," the website reads. "It's time to quit the partisan games and invest in real American jobs. Tell your Congressperson: Pass the American Jobs Plan."
Biden's wide-ranging $2 trillion package would rebuild roads and bridges across the country, remove all lead pipes from the nation's water system and invest in other infrastructure projects, while — its proponents claim — also generating millions of jobs. It also focuses on utilizing more renewable energy and addressing racial inequities in the economy. The president has said the legislation should be paid for by raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent — up from the current 21 percent rate but still lower than it was prior to 2017.
The moderate lawmakers WorkMoney is targeting include Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
"WorkMoney members are talking to moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats because they are the ones who are most likely to shape the legislation that ultimately passes," Grimes told CNBC. "These moderates on both sides of the aisle are the politicians who most need to hear from their constituents."
To pass in the Senate, the infrastructure legislation would need the support from all of these moderates, plus at least seven more Republicans, to reach the 60-vote threshold.
In 2020, dark money groups spent more than $1 billion on federal elections, according to OpenSecrets, continuing an exponential growth pattern that began when the Supreme Court opened the floodgates with its 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case.
Dark money had initially benefited Republicans more than Democrats, but the numbers have gone the other way over the past two election cycles.
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It's been a busy week for democracy reformers, with the For the People Act appearing to die in the Senate, Republicans threatening to break ranks, and Rep. Liz Cheney losing her leadership post despite her conservative credentials.
But there was so much more. Here's a sampling of stories you may have missed.
What we know about the high, broad turnout in the 2020 election (The Washington Post)
And for a little fun: Ranked Voting in NYC (The New Yorker)
- Will 2021 be defined by voting rights and electoral reform? - The ... ›
- Redistricting lawsuits seek to get ahead of partisan fights - The ... ›
- Biden taps voting rights advocate Kristen Clarke for senior DOJ role ›
- Two bills to make the next election fair - The Fulcrum ›
- Liz Cheney, Margaret Chase Smith and protecting democracy - The Fulcrum ›
- Kristen Clarke assumes the role Lani Guinier was denied - The Fulcrum ›
President Biden is spending Thursday in Georgia, the symbolic center of the voting rights debate, hours after making an impassioned call for reforming and sustaining democracy the finale for his first address to Congress.
The main reason for the trip is to pitch his ambitious $4 trillion plans to refashion the economy, rebuild its physical underpinnings and expand the government's social services system. But he's also visiting Jimmy Carter, who won the presidency on a promise to revive democratic norms after Watergate, and holding a rally in a place that's long been central to the voting rights fight.
"We have to prove democracy still works," Biden said at the wrapped up his nationally televised speech Wednesday night. He urged quick passage of the sweeping remake of federal election, campaign finance and government ethics rules known as HR 1 along with separate legislation to revive federal oversight in places with histories of voter suppression.
"Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America's adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting we can't," the president told the lawmakers. "We have to prove them wrong."
His words underscored a fundamental change in where the government's systemic dysfunctions rate on the roster of national challenges. When Biden started running for president three years ago, neither he nor any of the other top-tier candidates spent much time talking about the threats to the nation's well-being posed by that polarized partisanship and distrust in governance. A pandemic that threatened the nation's ability to hold an election, a president fermenting conspiracy theories about massive vote fraud and a violent insurrection at the Capitol have now prompted the new president to proclaim the survivability of democracy an "existential crisis."
Restoring faith in the system, he said, would be aided the most by a season of legislative productivity — a convenient truism, to be sure, given that would result in Biden's sprawling plans for expanded government getting through a narrowly Democratic Congress where almost every Republican opposes almost everything he's asking for. To overcome that resistance, Biden also appealed to every American's sense of responsibility to enhance democracy with civic engagement — confident that many more GOP-leaning voters than GOP lawmakers support his agenda.
The president also made an explicit appeal for enactment of a remade Voting Rights Act, which seeks to combat racial discrimination in election systems, and what sponsors call the For the People Act, which would set federal standards for registration, early voting and absentee ballot access that could not be undercut by the wave of more restrictive legislation now moving through Republican-run state legislatures across the country.
"More people voted in the last presidential election than any time in American history, in the middle of the worst pandemic ever," Biden said. " It should be celebrated. Instead, it's being attacked."
The comprehensive bill to countermand that attack has passed the House and will soon move through committee in the Senate. But after that the measure has no future unless it's scaled back dramatically, which most major democracy reform groups ardently oppose, or it becomes the vehicle for an unprecedented weakening of the legislative filibuster — which for now means the Republicans can stop the bill in its tracks. The showdown now looks likely in July or August.
The voting rights legislation, named for the late civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis, has not started to move but is on a similar trajectory as HR 1: smooth sailing through the House but dead-on-arrival in the Senate while the filibuster remains.
In a signal that Biden has elevated the issue near the top of his agenda, a voting rights campaign will soon be unveiled by Building Back Together, a nonprofit advocacy group recently created by the president's allies to promote his to-do list. The group will lobby for the two pieces of legislation in Congress while also working to overcome — or thwart the enactment of — restrictive GOP legislation in nine states: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
Biden was the first Democrat to carry Georgia in 28 years, in part because he ran up significant margins in such fast-growing and racially diverse places as Gwinnett County, suburbs northeast of Atlanta where the legacies of the Jim Crow past still resound. That is where Thursday evening's drive-in rally will take place.
That will be preceded by his visit to the Carter home in Plains. Biden was the first senator to endorse Carter back in 1976. Now 96, he is the longest-living former president but remains vocal on many issues, most recently deriding the newly restrictive voting law of his home state. Biden has called the measure written by the Republican General Assembly a "sick" and "un-American" response to former President Donald Trump's fact-free allegations of massive election cheating last year.
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