Vice President Kamala Harris’ new job leading the White House’s voting rights effort has given advocates renewed assurance the Biden administration plans to wage political war against Republican restrictions around the country, even as they acknowledge the path to federal-level legislation protecting the franchise remains difficult.
Harris, who asked for the job and discussed its parameters with President Joe Biden over the past month, is expected to focus on building outside support for voting rights ― including by enlisting the help of corporations ― as much as she will focus on trying to woo the few congressional Democrats who remain reluctant to pass the party’s wide-ranging democracy reform bill, H.R. 1, or a revitalization of the Voting Rights Act named after the late civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis.
“This is not just a federal government approach,” said a White House aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Harris’ plans, which are unlikely to be wholly finalized until after she returns from her first foreign trip as vice president next week. “There’s a lot of work to be done at the state level.”
The aide said it was possible Harris will travel to states where GOP-controlled legislatures are working to restrict voting rights. Republicans, inspired by former President Donald Trump’s escalation of long-standing GOP lies about widespread voter fraud, have introduced more than 300 pieces of legislation aiming to restrict voting in more than 40 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. While most of those proposals are unlikely to become law, Florida, Georgia and Texas have already seen major political showdowns over voting rights this year.
These laws have often targeted Black voters or those living in major urban areas, and have frequently given state legislators far more power to overturn election results ― something Trump called on Republicans to do after his clear loss to Biden last November.
The activists who have been fighting those efforts see Harris as a necessary and crucial political cavalry. Many are hopeful she can work with Kristen Clarke, the newly confirmed assistant attorney general for civil rights, to bring the federal government fully into the fray.
“We’ve been playing whack-a-mole filing lawsuits or being party to lawsuits across the landscape,” said Derrick Johnson, the president of the national NAACP. “There is no way, considering the rapid pace in which legislative bodies are seeking to suppress the Black vote, that we will be able to keep up all our efforts without support from this administration and the federal government stepping in and pushing back on these efforts.”
Two calls Harris made in recent days show how her attention could split between duties inside Washington and outside them. She talked to both Johnson, a prominent activist and civil rights leader, and to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who will be her most important ally in the efforts to woo Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The most immediate effect of Harris’ appointment was to reassure voting rights activists and government reformers of the administration’s commitment to a full-fledged effort to pass H.R. 1 and the Voting Rights Act. While Biden has repeatedly declared his support for voting rights as president, some have seen him as less focused on these issues than some of his rivals in the 2020 Democratic Primary, including Harris.
“They’ve been saying all the right things, but they could flex their muscle a bit more,” said one Democratic strategist directly involved in the effort to pass a new voting rights act and H.R. 1, who requested anonymity to discuss intra-party dynamics. “This seems like the beginning of making it a priority.”
The selection of Harris to lead Biden’s efforts on voting rights is also seen positively on Capitol Hill, where Democrats had been waiting for robust White House involvement.
“It’s a valuable sign that the White House determined that the vice president is the point person,” a senior Senate staffer said. “And, not for nothing, she’s a multiracial woman who went to an HBCU who can speak on a personal level about what the fight for voting rights has meant historically.”
With little hope of wooing Republicans, passage of the For The People Act rests on the whim and interest of Manchin and Sinema.
Manchin is the lone Democrat to not co-sponsor the bill. He initially released a statement of support for elements of the bill with a declaration that he intended to find bipartisan support because he believed Republicans would agree to certain aspects of the bill in good faith. But, after the bill did not receive any Republican votes in committee, he declared that he no longer supported the bill. Republicans are universally opposed to the bill, including the provisions that he indicated support for in his initial statement.
Schumer plans to bring the bill to the Senate floor on the week of June 21. For the bill to reach the floor, all 50 Democrats will need to vote to discharge from committee after the Senate Rules Committee deadlocked in a 9-9 vote on party lines. That means they need Manchin’s support. But the senator has not indicated what would be needed from his own party for it to obtain his support in bringing the bill to the floor. He has not even met with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), one of the bill’s two lead sponsors, to discuss any objections, concerns or questions about the bill.
Even if the bill were to be discharged from committee to the floor, it will face a Republican filibuster. The only way the bill could pass, whether as it is currently structured or in a slimmed-back capacity, is if Democrats change the Senate’s filibuster rules. But both Manchin and Sinema have declared an unwillingness to do so.
A campaign by the White House, amid an onslaught of Republican filibusters, to pass the bill would heighten the pressure on filibuster reform holdouts to toe the party line. Some voting rights advocates hoped Harris would travel to Sinema and Manchin’s home states to build pressure.
Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, advocated that Harris travel to the home states of lawmakers like Sinema and Manchin, since it would be “taking the fight to them.”
“It’s working to recruit their donors, their voters, and making the case in their local papers, and in their backyards, about why this has to happen and why their senators need to show up for American democracy in this moment. This is hand-to-hand combat time,” Ufot added.
But Harris is unlikely to focus most of her time on wooing Manchin or Sinema, neither of whom she is seen as particularly close to. Manchin famously bristled when the administration sent Harris to make media appearances in West Virginia without alerting him first.
One thing Harris will do, according to the White House aide: try to enlist corporations in the fight to protect voting rights.
“We saw how powerful companies holding the state accountable can be,” the aide said, pointing to corporations in Georgia who spoke out against GOP legislation. “That’s going to be huge when it comes to this fight.”
Ufot said such an approach, enlisting almost all of civil society to stand up for voting rights and democracy, was necessary to combat the GOP’s efforts.
“We’re talking about the press. We’re talking about corporations. We’re talking about activists and organizers, the civil rights groups. We’re talking about state elected officials. We’re talking about the federal administration,” she said. “This is an ‘all hands on deck’ moment, and all hands aren’t on deck yet. But my hope is that they will be in advance of this vote.”
Travis Waldron contributed reporting.