Voting Rights Activists Cling To Hope In ‘Race Against Time’

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 2: A mobile billboard truck calling for passage of The For the People Act drives by Union Station and the Capitol in Washington as the Poor Peoples Campaign and the Unite union hold a rally and... UNITED STATES - AUGUST 2: A mobile billboard truck calling for passage of The For the People Act drives by Union Station and the Capitol in Washington as the Poor Peoples Campaign and the Unite union hold a rally and march to protest voter suppression laws on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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August 13, 2021 7:00 a.m.

Republican-led legislatures continue blanketing the states they control in laws that make it harder to vote. Census data has been released, starting the clock on the redistricting process which Republicans disproportionately use for partisan advantage. The midterms creep closer, curtailing the time Democrats have to put voting reforms in place.

And Congress is in recess. 

Before the Senate decamped early Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) set the stage for taking up voting rights reforms when it returns in September. In the meantime, a group of Democratic senators are negotiating behind the scenes on a package of reforms, expected to be  a whittled-down version of the For the People Act.

“Voting rights, voting rights, will be the first matter of legislative business when the Senate returns to session in September,” Schumer said then, adding: “Let me be very clear, this is a debate the Senate must have.” 

In his words, voting rights activists find hope — a stubborn optimism in the face of enormous obstacles.

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“We know they’ve been working on the bill and are close to finishing, will finish over recess,” Adam Bozzi, vice president for communications at End Citizens United. “That’s a huge reason for optimism.”

“The key takeaway is that the bill isn’t dead,” added Adam Eichen, executive director of democracy reform group Equal Citizens. 

The first hurdle is getting all 50 Democratic senators on board, something the bill’s first iteration failed to guarantee. But after that, a goal which is achievable in theory, comes the same intractable problem that’s been deviling Democrats all term: how to get Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) to allow changes to the filibuster, the only way to pass voting rights legislation with a simple majority. There are not 10 Republican votes to pass voting rights bills.

If Manchin and Sinema won’t budge on the filibuster, voting rights legislation simply won’t pass. It’s a reality niggling at the back of every promise of progress. 

After Republicans blocked Democrats’ attempt to pass the For the People Act in June, energy and attention around the issue largely stalled. Infrastructure legislation, with a clearer path to becoming law, took precedence.

But a small group of senators including Sens. Manchin, Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and perhaps the lawmaker with the most pressing personal stake in voting reform, Raphael Warnock (D-GA), have been quietly working to craft a narrower For the People Act behind closed doors. Warnock is up for reelection in 2022 after winning the last two years of former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s (R-GA) term in 2020, and Georgia has already passed one of the most egregious voting overhauls.

Some of the current negotiating involves incorporating Manchin’s alterations and homing in on the crux of the original bill: hobbling partisan gerrymandering, protecting voting rights and addressing the cyclical influx of dark money.

To activists, Manchin’s involvement in the process is key. 

“They’re working on a compromise bill that he is central part of,” Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy, told TPM. “Presumably, he wouldn’t be going through all this effort if he won’t help find a path forward.” 

“It’s particularly important that Manchin is very engaged in drafting the compromise bill,” added Bozzi. “He has said that inanction is not an option, and we know that as a former secretary of state, he knows these issues and cares about them.” 

Still, no one has a clear read on whether or how Manchin and Sinema can be convinced to dump the filibuster for voting rights. 

“There are creative ideas that could be used to keep the pressure on, to capture media attention and really put the public focus on this,” Dave Daley, former editor in chief at Salon and gerrymandering expert, told TPM. “That doesn’t mean it’ll change Senators Manchin and Sinema’s minds — but Democrats have a moral obligation to do absolutely everything that they can.” 

Many activists are looking for a more aggressive messaging campaign from the White House than they’ve seen so far, concerned that Biden has not adequately centered the issue in his public remarks. Leaked comments from White House officials saying they can “out-organize voter suppression” have stoked significant anger. Biden has expressed frustration at the expectation that he get voting rights legislation passed, pointing to Democrats’ achingly slim majorities in both chambers.

“President Biden needs to make it very clear as a leader of the Democratic party that this is his priority, this is what we’re focusing on — just as he did with the American Rescue Plan, which passed, just as he did with the infrastructure bill, which just passed,” Morgan said. “He made those things a priority and got it done.” 

In a dynamic where two lawmakers, both of whom seem blind to the growing crisis and who aren’t up for reelection for years, hold all the cards, optimism cannot exist unfettered. But those most invested in the effort insist that Democrats at least get caught trying.

“We’re glad that commitment was made and appreciate leadership being involved in doing that,” Morgan said. “Now they need a plan to overcome the filibuster and get this done, potentially coming back early from recess. Recess can wait, our democracy cannot.” 

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