WASHINGTON ― More than 100 voting rights activists marched to the White House on Tuesday to urge President Joe Biden to endorse changes to Senate filibuster rules that would allow Democrats to pass major legislation to protect and expand voting rights.
Senate Democratic leaders will bring the Freedom to Vote Act, a bill to enshrine voting rights protections and other election reforms into federal law, up for consideration on Wednesday. But the bill, which adopts many key provisions from voting bills that have already passed the House, will almost certainly fall short of the 60 votes it needs to advance past a Republican filibuster.
Republicans have twice filibustered other major voting rights bills that are meant to counteract more than a dozen new laws GOP-controlled state legislatures have enacted to restrict the right to vote, a push driven by former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen through widespread voter fraud.
Chanting “Hey, Joe, the filibuster has got to go” and painting the legislation as vital to the preservation of American democracy, the activists rallied outside the White House to demand more urgency and action from Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Both former senators, Biden and Harris support the legislation and have called it a priority. But neither has explicitly backed changes to filibuster rules that would allow Democrats to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and other key voting rights-related bills with a simple majority, the only plausible path for those bills to become law.
“We have 51 votes to pass urgently-needed voting rights legislation. A minority of senators are imposing the power of the filibuster, saying there will be no debate, there will be no vote,” said Ben Jealous, the president of People For the American Way, a progressive grassroots group that helped organize the demonstration. “In an instance like that, the only thing that really breaks through is when the president of the United States himself calls on the Senate to fix or nix the filibuster.”
U.S. Park Police briefly detained at least 25 of the activists on Tuesday, citing them for civil disobedience after they refused to disperse off of the sidewalk nearest to the White House’s North Lawn. Those cited included Jealous, the former president of the NAACP who ran for governor of Maryland in 2018; Virginia Kase Solomón, the CEO of the League of Women Voters; multiple religious leaders from across the country; actress Alyssa Milano; and Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen, who is running in Georgia’s secretary of state election next year.
Five of the activists had also been arrested at a similar protest on Oct. 5, and before Park Police closed in on the demonstrators, Jealous promised that the size of the demonstrations ― and the number of arrests ― would continue to grow if the White House didn’t take action.
“He knows how to get things done when it’s important to him,” Solomón said. “We are here to remind him that he holds the power of the bully pulpit, that he has the power to move political will when he wants to. So he needs to show us now.”
Jealous said activists have received “conflicting signals” from the Biden administration about whether the president shares their urgency on voting rights. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki hinted that Biden could consider endorsing changes to filibuster rules if and when the Freedom to Vote Act fails to advance.
“If Republicans cannot come forward and stop standing in the way, if they can’t support strengthening, protecting the fundamental right to vote, then Democrats are going to have to determine an alternative path forward,” Psaki said during her daily press briefing.
She did not elaborate on what that alternative path might look like, although Democrats have several options available to them. At least 47 Democratic senators favor changes to or elimination of the filibuster, and voting rights activists have called on party leaders to create a “carve out” in which “democracy-related legislation,” including voting rights bills and House-approved legislation to make Washington D.C. the 51st state, would not be subject to the filibuster.
Any such changes would require support from all 50 Democratic senators, but Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have been reluctant to back filibuster reforms of any sort thus far.
That’s no excuse for inaction, several activists said Tuesday. Biden, they noted, served in the Senate for more than 30 years and pitched himself during last year’s Democratic presidential primary as the candidate best positioned to strike deals and navigate bills through the Senate’s arcane legislative process.
“President Biden has to show some leadership,” said Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of the Advancement Project, a civil and voting rights advocacy group. “One of the things about President Biden that we all knew when he was running is that he had relationships in the Senate. And he’s not using his relationships to correct this problem.”
The Freedom to Vote Act is a product of months of wrangling among Democratic senators as they sought to craft a bill that would garner unanimous support after Manchin announced his opposition to key provisions of the For The People Act, a sweeping elections bill the House passed earlier this year.
The filibuster is also blocking Senate Democrats from passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill named for the late civil rights leader and Georgia congressman that would reauthorize and strengthen key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Activists are also still seeking a path forward for D.C. statehood, which still lacks caucus-wide support but would fall victim to the filibuster even if the four Democrats who’ve yet to back the legislation ultimately come around.)
The combination of provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would create federal standards for voting rights and invalidate many of the biggest changes Republicans have made to limit ballot access this year and in prior years.
“Nothing we can do in the states can give us those protections,” Browne Dianis said. “We have to have federal legislation to protect voters.”
Democrats are also still trying to negotiate a path forward on the major social safety net and climate package they are attempting to enact via reconciliation in order to avoid the filibuster. That has created a crowded legislative calendar as the first year of Biden’s presidency nears its end. But with redistricting underway and the 2022 elections looming, the activists argued that voting rights should move to the top of the White House’s list of priorities.
“When you’re the world’s oldest democracy, roads and bridges are critically important to your commerce, but your democracy is the very source of your identity as a nation,” Jealous said. “There’s nothing more important than our democracy. Nothing can take precedence over this.”