WASHINGTON (AP) — As Republicans impose new restrictions on ballot access in several states, President Biden has no easy options to protect voting rights despite mounting pressure from frustrated activists.
Unlike other issues such as immigration or environmental protection, the White House carries little weight without congressional action as the November election nears.
“If there was some kind of presidential power readily available on this, others would have,” said Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a Harvard Law School professor who studies electoral law. “There is no meaningful unilateral authority here.”
Nine months before the election that will determine control of Congress, suffrage advocates fear there isn’t enough time to push back against laws and state policies that make it harder to vote. They see the changes as a more subtle form of past voting restrictions such as literacy tests and poll taxes that have been used to disenfranchise black voters, a vital Democratic constituency.
Biden issued an executive order last March that expanded access to voter registration and voter information. The order is designed to make it easier for people in federal custody to register to vote, improve tracking of military ballots, and provide better access for Americans with disabilities.
But to do more than that, Biden would have to rely on arcane and controversial constitutional provisions that probably couldn’t come into effect in time anyway, Stephanopoulos said. And the further Biden goes to push the issue of voting rights, the more he could face criticism for overstepping his authority.
“It’s very difficult for a president to intervene,” said Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian at Rice University. “Everything is done at the level of each state.”
So while Biden may be able to take small steps around the edges, Brinkley said, “if he tries anything extraordinary, it will be stuck in court for years.”
Americans are used to seeing presidents act unilaterally when they hit roadblocks in Congress. President Barack Obama has resorted to a flurry of executive branch actions that have been described as “we can’t wait.” He has exercised his authority to enforce environmental regulations and protect young immigrants who have been brought into the country illegally from deportation.
There is no equivalent legal leverage for Biden to advance voting rights policies.
Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League, was skeptical that executive actions – which can be undone by a future president as quickly as they were imposed by a predecessor – might be enough anyway.
“Executive executive order or action is not a substitute or substitute or even a credible alternative to legislation to protect voting rights and democracy,” he said.
But so far, the legislation has not been a viable option for Democrats.
Democrats have drafted election legislation that would usher in the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections in a generation by removing barriers to voting enacted in the name of election security. The plan would create national election standards that would override state-level laws and restore the Justice Department’s ability to oversee election laws in states with a history of discrimination.
Republicans said the proposed changes were not about fairness but about giving Democrats an advantage in the election. And Democrats have failed to change Senate rules to allow the narrow Democratic majority in the chamber to pass the laws on their own.
Last year, Republicans pushed through 33 laws creating new voting limits in 19 states, and five more states have bills aimed at restricting voting. This effort is driven in part by a growing and widespread denial of President Donald Trump’s 2020 election defeat.
Republicans who have sided with Trump’s election lies are separately promoting efforts to influence future elections by installing sympathetic leaders in local electoral offices and supporting for elective office some of those who participated in the 6 January 2021 at the US Capitol. .
Democrats and suffrage advocates see the Justice Department as their best bet to ensure free and fair elections. But there is a political divide over what “free and fair” means in a country where millions believe false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
The department has attorneys dedicated to enforcing civil voting statutes, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has made it a priority.
But the department is limited in what it can do, following a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that rolled back part of the Civil Rights-era Voting Rights Act, which required States with a history of discrimination seek approval for election law changes.
Separately, the Justice Department also has a role to play in ensuring fair elections, but that too has been complicated by politics in recent years.
There has been growing concern among election administrators about the role of the department after then-Attorney General William Barr told prosecutors to investigate allegations of voter fraud before certification of the 2020 election. Barr expressed concern about potential widespread voter fraud due to an increase in mail-in votes during the pandemic, but he later said there had been no widespread fraud.
Garland’s Justice Department has sued Georgia over the state’s new election law, alleging Republican lawmakers in the state rushed through a sweeping overhaul in an effort to deny black voters equality access to the ballot. The Justice Department also filed suit against Texas over its new congressional districts.
But the Supreme Court last week signaled a willingness to side with the GOP on those issues.
The High Court has suspended a lower court ruling that Alabama must draw new congressional districts before the 2022 election to increase black voting power. The court action means the next election will be held according to a map drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature of Alabama which contains a majority black district in a state in which more than a quarter of the population is black.
The lower three-judge court, which includes two justices appointed by Trump, had ruled that the state likely violated federal voting rights law by diluting the political power of black voters.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the Supreme Court undermined the federal government’s ability to protect voting rights, and he still believes the best chance for long-term change is to pass legislation through the federal government. Congress.
“The Department of Justice is doing everything it can with one hand tied behind its back,” he said. He noted that the Voting Rights Act only became law after previous attempts had failed.
“We don’t stop because the first attempt didn’t work.”
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