Failure on Voting Rights Would Be Historic

After Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema made it clear that they were not in favor of altering the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, essentially dooming the bills to failure and ensuring that Republicans could continue their efforts to unleash an era of modified Jim Crow, the best the White House could say not to sound completely defeated was that they were going to keep fighting.

On Thursday, President Biden said:

“I don’t know that we can get it done, but I know one thing: As long as I have a breath in me, as long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m enraged at all, I’m going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures are moving.”

Biden has had breath in him all year, but he just fully joined the fight last week.

On Friday, when reporters asked Vice President Kamala Harris what comes next on voting rights after Thursday’s setbacks, she said:

“Well, we keep fighting. We are committed to seeing this through, however long it takes and whatever it takes.”

Again, activists have been fighting this battle for nearly a year without much support from the White House. Democratic state legislators from Texas fled the state and flew to Washington to break quorum and try to prevent the governor from enacting a raft of voter restrictions.

The vice president, as well as dozens of members of Congress, agreed to meet with them, but weeks after they arrived in Washington, the president still couldn’t be bothered to sit down with them.

Biden gave a big voting rights speech in Philadelphia while those Texas Democrats were in Washington, calling the Republican assault on voting rights “the 21st century Jim Crow,” but in that speech he never once mentioned the filibuster.

The New York Times wrote at the time that “Mr. Biden has bucked increasing pressure from Democrats to support pushing the legislation through the Senate by eliminating the filibuster, no matter the political cost. In fact, the president seemed to acknowledge that the legislation had little hope of passing as he shifted his focus to the midterm elections.”

For months, voting rights activist groups like the League of Women Voters, People for the American Way and Declaration for American Democracy engaged in direct actions “demanding that President Biden use the full power of his office to support federal voting rights legislation,” as the League said. In October, some of these activists were even arrested protesting in front of the White House.

The following month, the Rev. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign gathered activists outside the White House again, for a day of action. “Mr. President,” he said, “we want you to succeed and we will stand with you. But we need you to fight against the filibuster because the filibuster is being used to fight against us, and to bring down democracy.”

At the time, Barber requested a meeting with president, saying, “You need to bring religious leaders and women activists, the poor and low-wage people that you say you care about — you need them in the Oval Office.” Barber told me that Biden needed to make the moral argument. Biden never met with them.

The White House says that it is going to keep fighting, but the fighting has been raging for months now, as the president focused most of his time and energy on a spending bill that is now stalled, if not dead. We are now in the last stages of the fight for voting rights, and democracy is losing. In particular, the full participation of Black voters and other voters of color, as an issue, is losing.

This “keep fighting” language is little more than a pep talk designed to prevent voters from falling into despair when the profound reality that their votes — and democratic rule itself — are in danger fully sets in. Well, I’m not interested in happy messages of hope. I’m irate. Failure on voting rights now would be historic. I never thought that my children would grow up to see Black people have less voting power than they did when I was a young adult.

I fully acknowledge that Republicans are the true villains here, but I must also acknowledge that the people who pledged to come to the rescue, the heroes of the story, were too distracted for too long to do all they could.

The reason this failure to protect voting rights is so crucial is that the slate of bills currently being advanced by state legislators is not a final push, but an opening salvo in a longer war to curtail voting. If the Republicans see that they can get away with the current suppression, they’ll simply pass more bills. Georgia is already taking another bite at the apple, attempting to pass a second slate of voter suppression restrictions, following the ones they enacted after the 2020 election.

As the game warden said in “Jurassic Park” about the velociraptors, “They were testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically.” Well, Republicans have found the weakness in our fence, and our wardens are failing to fortify it.

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