FFor years, Helen Butler has made it her mission to increase voter turnout, especially among black voters, in Georgia and the South. She’s used to skepticism. The people she meets wonder why they should bother, because their vote won’t matter. No matter who is in the job, long-standing issues will not be resolved.
More recently, she pushed back on efforts by Republicans in Georgia to make voting more difficult. She saw things like overly aggressive efforts to remove people from voters’ lists and the rapid consolidation of polling stations.
Last year, she listened to Joe Biden promise he would protect the franchise if elected president. “One thing the Senate and the President can do right away is pass the bill to restore the voting rights law… this is one of the first things I will do as President if I was elected. We cannot allow the fundamental right to vote to be denied, ”he said in July of last year.
Months later, Butler and other organizers achieved a breakthrough that had lasted for years. After years of investing in voter mobilization, black voter turnout rose in the November election, helping Joe Biden win a state long seen as a Republican stronghold. In January, black voters returned and helped Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win two Senate nominations, giving Democrats control of the US Senate.
On the night he was elected president, Biden called on the black voters who helped him seize the presidency, saying, “When this campaign was at its lowest, the African-American community again fell apart. lifted for me. They still have my back, and I will have yours.
And so, after Biden’s inauguration, Butler and many others expected voting rights to be one of the first things the President and Democrats tackle.
Instead, during the president’s first year in office, Butler observed with dismay that Biden and the Democrats failed to pass voting rights legislation. Meanwhile, Republicans in Georgia passed sweeping new voting restrictions, one of many places across the country that made voting more difficult.
“It is disheartening, I can tell you, of all the work we have done to have fair elections, to involve people and to have a Senate that will not act to protect the most sacred right, the law to vote. , is unheard of, ”said Butler.
“[It] makes voters say, “Did I vote for the right people?” … You didn’t fight for me. Why should I fight to keep you in power in 2022? ‘ “
Democrats have been blocked by filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance most laws. Republicans have used the rule to successfully block voting rights bills four times this year.
Democrats need the support of the 50 senators to get rid of the rule, and two Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are strongly against it. Both senators argued the rule forges a bipartisan compromise, but many believe Republicans have turned it into a tool of obstruction and that protecting voting rights is an issue urgent enough to warrant getting rid of the rule. rule.
There was already simmering frustration on the part of voting advocates who believe Biden has not taken strong action, especially as several states have passed sweeping new voting restrictions.
That frustration is now turning to growing alarm that time is running out to pass meaningful voting rights legislation ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, amid a busy congressional agenda that is already backed up for December. More than 200 civic action groups urged Congress on Thursday to postpone its December recess until it passes voting rights legislation.
“All the experts and lawyers tell us the same thing: time is running out. We are not yet running out of time, but we are running out of ways to get this bill passed, to have it enacted, to be able to eliminate all legal challenges and to implement it for 2022 ”, declared Tiffany Muller, the president and executive director of End Citizens United / Let America Vote, which strongly supports both bills.
Senate Democrats are looking for a way forward to get around the filibuster, but appear increasingly likely to complete Biden’s first year in office without passing a voting rights bill.
“If Congress doesn’t get there by the end of the year, it’s hard to see why the political will will be there later. What will have changed from January to February? Said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, a grassroots group that supports the bills.
Distress is mounting as Republicans in several states, including Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Ohio, pass distorted electoral maps that will secure Republican advantages in Congress for the next decade.
Many new districts are dampening the voting power of the rapidly growing population among Hispanic, Asian and black voters, who tend to support Democrats, by grouping them into uncompetitive districts.
The voting rights bills blocked in Congress contain provisions that would limit, and in some cases stop, this kind of serious distortion, called gerrymandering. The bills would also end many of the new restrictions states passed this year and guard against similar restrictions in the future.
Even if Democrats somehow found a way to pass a franchise bill, they would face an uphill battle trying to block cards already passed – as the primary elections for those congressional seats up for grabs in the mid-term of next year.
The nomination period is already open in Texas and should begin soon in North Carolina, noted Michael Li, a redistribution expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, making the courts more reluctant to intervene. Congress has made things “more complicated,” Li said, as it is more difficult to challenge the cards once they go into effect and the election schedule is up.
“If the goal is to set the cards for 2022… it is getting dangerously late in the game,” he said.
Several provisions of the Freedom to Vote Act, one of the voting rights bills pending on Capitol Hill, would also require some states to make significant changes to the way elections are conducted.
It requires states to offer same-day registration (not currently offered in 30 states), online voter registration (not offered in eight states). Election officials need time to implement these changes, and it will be more difficult on the eve of the election.
If the legislation were enacted, states could likely pivot to implement changes and the more time they have, the smoother it will be, said Tammy Patrick, senior advisor at the Democracy Fund, specializing in election administration.
“I think it’s doable. But if we are to make sure that this is done correctly and well, it is going to take time and certainly resources. So the sand in the hourglass is moving away, ”she said.
As the window to pass legislation closes, some voting rights activists say the White House is too passive.
After Biden made his strongest signal yet to change the filibuster, activists had high hopes for details of the strategy during a November 15 meeting with Kamala Harris, to whom Biden spoke. asked to lead the White House’s voting rights effort.
Instead, Harris gave six minutes of remarks and then let the staff answer questions. Some attendees were upset and one of them, Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told the Guardian of the meeting: “Nothing substantial came out of it, it was very frustrating.”
Like Butler, Albright said he was concerned about the message to black voters who surrendered and helped elect Biden and Harris.
“You have people in the White House and friends in the White House who think if we get there people don’t care how long it took. I think they are dangerously wrong, ”he said. “People remember you put everything else above our interests. “