Last week Vice President Kamala Harris announced that, to counter the spate of restrictive voting measures which have been enacted in several Republican-controlled states, the Democratic National Committee would spend $25 million on “tools and technology to register voters, to educate voters, to turn out voters, to protect voters.”
In remarks at Howard University, Harris said, “People say, ‘What’s the strategy?’” to which she answered, “We are going to assemble the largest voter protection team we have ever had sure to ensure that all Americans can vote and have your vote counted in a fair and transparent process.”
Strikingly, Harris did not mention as part of the strategy enactment of the For the People Act, the voting rights legislation Democrats passed in the House but cannot get around the filibuster in the Senate. After Harris’ Howard speech and a West Wing meeting with President Biden, voting rights advocates were not soothed. “There is no substitute for federal legislative action,” said Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice. Several demanded Biden use his bully pulpit more aggressively. Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said, “I told the president: We will not be able to litigate our way out of this threat to black citizenship. We must have the president use his voice.”
Democratic members of Congress are also pressuring Biden to not only push for the voting rights bill, but also a weakening of the filibuster in order to pass the bill. In an interview with Politico, House Majority Whip James Clyburn said Biden should “pick up the phone and tell [Sen.] Joe Manchin, ‘Hey, we should do a carve-out’’” of the filibuster, which means forbidding the tactic when legislation is on the Senate floor related to constitutional rights.
The White House and the most of the rest of the Democratic Party have differing strategies on voting rights, because they appear to be operating on a different set of premises. “This is an existential crisis for democracy and the party that is defending democracy,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, arguing that the Democratic Party needs the For the People Act. But according to reporting by The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein, the Biden administration doesn’t have the same sense of impending doom. “Although White House officials consider the laws offensive from a civil-rights perspective,” he wrote, “they do not think most of those laws will advantage Republicans in the 2022 and 2024 elections as much as many liberal activists fear."
Brownstein interviewed one anonymous White House official, who noted Biden’s ability to navigate the voting laws in 2020. “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,” said this Biden aide.
As I’ve written previously, recent history — Barack Obama’s reelection, Democratic takeover of the House in 2018, Biden’s victory and the Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2020 — supports the White House view; Democrats can and have overcome Republican-backed restrictive voting laws. In particular, academic research shows that strict laws requiring ID to vote have outright backfired on Republicans by firing up the Democratic base.
However, to acknowledge that Democrats have the capacity to outmuscle and outfox Republicans is to acknowledge that modern attempts at voter suppression have been too feeble to doom our democracy. The Republican intent behind restrictive election laws may be nefarious, but the impact to date has been negligible.
Such analysis is completely out of sync with the perspective of most activist Democrats, who have convinced themselves that Republicans are building a suppressive election law regime that harks back to the era of Jim Crow. In turn, Biden and his team have chosen to not provoke intra-party tension by openly and forcefully challenging the narrative deeply held by most rank-and-file Democrats.
While it is certainly understandable that Biden doesn’t want sow dissension in his own party ranks, we are seeing the downside with failing to correct flawed narratives. No party leaders were willing to challenge the assumptions held by most party members, walk them through the available data, and explain how Democrats can still get their voters to the polls regardless of what Republican state legislatures pass.
Most Democrats believe passage of the For the People Act is essential to the fate of their party and democracy itself. If White House officials believe passage is not essential, but isn’t willing to explain why, confusion and demoralization among the Democratic rank-and-file would appear inevitable.
Democrats face an uphill battle in 2022, as the president’s party almost always loses more than a few House seats in a midterm election and the Democratic margin in the House is a scant five seats. And control of the Senate is on a knife’s edge as well. If Democrats are to make history and keep their congressional majorities, their ranks cannot be demoralized. It’s time for the Biden administration to talk straight to the Democratic base.