Hello, and Happy Thursday,
Around Thanksgiving, I spoke with a few people who had recently attended a meeting at the White House to discuss voting rights. They were frustrated.
They had gone into the meeting quite hopeful. After spending months watching Senate Republicans use the filibuster to block two major federal voting rights bills, there were signs things were moving in the right direction. In late October, Joe Biden gave his public blessing to changing the filibuster, the Senate rule Republicans have relied on to block the voting rights bills. So when hundreds of leaders of major groups pushing for voting reform gathered on a 15 November teleconference meeting with White House officials, they expected to hear more details about a plan to move forward.
But the people I spoke with said they didn’t hear any kind of plan at all. “They did not lay out a strategy for getting this done,” one person I spoke with said. Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told me it was “very frustrating” and it felt like a “check-the-box kind of call”. Kamala Harris, tapped to lead the White House’s voting rights push, stopped by the meeting briefly, read from prepared remarks that one person described as the “same old, same old” and then left. White House staff answered three questions from participants on the call.
The frustration with how Biden is handling the push for voting rights is not new. For months, activists have said that the president has failed to put muscle behind it. “He’s phoning it in,” Ezra Levin, a co-founder of the grassroots group Indivisible, told me back in June. Biden has since given a speech on voting rights.
“Nothing comes without a fight, which is why the president and vice-president are working with Speaker Pelosi, leader Schumer, and advocates to protect our democracy and the fundamental right to vote,” Sabrina Singh, a White House spokesperson, told me.
In recent weeks, I’ve noticed that frustration is increasingly turning into alarm. State lawmakers across the country are rapidly enacting distorted political maps that will help cement Republican majorities in many places for the next decade. Those districts may well help Republicans retake control of the US House next year. Candidates are already filing for office to run in those districts in Texas and North Carolina. There are rapidly approaching primary elections set to take place in the spring. (The first day of early voting in the Texas primary is 14 February.) And yet, the senate appears likely to end the year without passing a voting rights bill.
Helen Butler, a longtime organizer in Georgia who helped turn out record numbers of Black voters last year, said she thought passing new voting protections would be one of the first things Biden did after being inaugurated. “It is disheartening, I can tell you, out of all the work we’ve put in to have fair elections, to get people engaged, and to have the Senate that will not act to protect the most sacred right, the right to vote, is unheard of,” she told me.
Now, Senate Democrats are looking to January as the earliest point at which they might be able to make changes to the filibuster and pass voting legislation, Politico reported Wednesday. The small group of Democratic senators tasked with finding a way forward on the filibuster is projecting optimism that they’ll be able to get Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, both staunch defenders of the filibuster, to support changes, according to Politico. We’ll see what happens in January, but when Levin and I spoke a few weeks ago, he wasn’t particularly optimistic.
“If Congress doesn’t get this done by the end of the year, it’s hard to see why the political will will be there later. What will have changed in January in February?” he said.
Please continue to write to me each week with your questions about elections and voting at email@example.com or DM me on Twitter at @srl and I’ll try to answer as many as I can.