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Why is Biden outraged about voting restrictions but not the filibuster?

Joe Biden standing at a lectern bearing the presidential seal, before a background of U.S. flags
President Biden speaks at the White House in July (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s weekly newsletter. Sign up here.

Democrats have restarted their push to pass federal voting legislation in the form of the John Lewis Voting Rights Bill, which would extend preclearance across the country, and Sen. Joe Manchin’s limited version of the For the People Act. The final version of Manchin’s slimmed-down bill is still under negotiation, and there has been no clarity on the plan for filibuster reform.

But the push for filibuster reform goes on, and it’s being boosted by a million-dollar ad buy from the political action committee End Citizens United. The ad notably sends the message straight to President Biden and does not name the senators—Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—who are hesitant to change the filibuster rules. “President Biden, please tell the Senate: Reform the filibuster,” the ad says. “Everything is at stake.”

Focusing on Biden is an interesting move, especially since the White House has been the target of such advocacy for a while. Way back in March, Politico wrote that Biden’s “resistance to filibuster reform began to crack” because he realized his agenda was at risk if the filibuster continued in its current form. But then the tides shifted in early July, when White House press secretary Jen Psaki danced around three questions on filibuster reform, never committing to public advocacy. Days later, a speech Biden gave on voting rights made no mention of filibuster reform at all. And then, during a CNN town hall, he said ending the filibuster would “throw the entire Congress into chaos” and that “nothing at all will get done.” It was the firmest answer he’d given, and it wasn’t what advocates wanted to hear.

The White House has put itself in a quandary. In the CNN town hall and elsewhere, Biden has said the wave of restrictive voting legislation is the “most significant threat to our democracy since the Civil War.” But in the same conversations, he refuses to acknowledge what Democrats call the most significant roadblock to preventing that destruction. The White House cannot continue to have it both ways: If Republican changes to election laws could, as Biden repeatedly has claimed, imperil our democracy, does it matter that “nothing” will get done in Congress? It is either a cataclysmic problem that must be repaired with all possible speed, or it is not and filibuster reform is not worth it. Biden, it would seem, must take a clearer position to even clear the lowest possible political bar: making sense.

Of course, reforming the filibuster is not the same as ending the filibuster, but we’ve yet to see a coherent strategy for such reform — for example, specifically carving out civil rights issues or requiring fewer than 60 votes to end debate. If Senate Democrats don’t intend to craft a plan, then it seems that the White House, which has placed Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of fixing what they say is a crucial problem, should offer straightforward guidance. Until they do, this federal legislation isn’t going anywhere.

Back Then

Now, for some history. It often takes top-down, unexpected leadership for things to start shakin’, as my mother likes to say (the “start shakin’” part, not the unexpected leadership part, though I assume she’d agree). As we’ve discussed in this newsletter before, states were allowed full discretion in defining who made up the electorate. Sometimes, these rules differed for federal and local races. For example, in the mid-1800s in North Carolina, a surprise Whig candidate for governor named David S. Reid made suffrage a gigantic part of his platform. Because, in North Carolina, there was no property requirement for voting in gubernatorial races, he saw a swell of support from the landless and nabbed the office. He then made eliminating the property requirement in U.S. senatorial elections a huge part of his advocacy while governor, saying that the “elective franchise is the dearest right of an American citizen.” He found it particularly reprehensible that there were about 50,000 free white men in the state who were disenfranchised by the state’s Constitution in federal senatorial elections. This position had been a departure from the stance of the Whig party, which had previously declared mass enfranchisement “a system of communism unjust and Jacobinical.” Realizing that Reid’s appeal to voters was a political win, they quietly changed their position in the mid-1800s following his election to governor, and the property requirement was removed for senatorial elections in the state.

In Other Voting News

  • One reason the federal voting rights bill matters so much at the local level is, to take one example, the intractable conflict in Texas. Democratic lawmakers remain camped out in Washington, D.C., and Gov. Greg Abbott has announced the second special session. This will require the Senate — which has already passed the elections bill — to start all over again, but it may not matter if the House Democrats choose not to return. This could continue for a while, as Abbott has pledged to call as many sessions as necessary until the elections bill passes.
  • A group of Democratic lawmakers have introduced the “the Protecting Election Administration from Interference Act,” which would extend harassment and intimidation protections — which currently cover only poll workers — to election workers who count ballots and certify results.
  • Thursday was the anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and to mark the occasion Attorney General Merrick Garland penned an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for lawmakers to pass federal legislation. After giving an account of the broad history of voting reforms, he writes, “we must say again that it is not right to erect barriers that make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. And it is time for Congress to act again to protect that fundamental right.”
  • A Republican lawmaker in Wisconsin has attempted to seize ballots and machines in Milwaukee and Brown counties for an inspection, issuing subpoenas that may or may not be legally valid. They were issued by Rep. Janel Brandtjen, the chairwoman of the Assembly Elections Committee, who told a group of supporters, “This is not something that we’re going to be doing just in 2020. We’re going to be doing it every year going forward.”
  • Conservatives in Nebraska have been trying to get a voter ID bill passed for years, but it has always stalled in committee. Now, a group called Citizens for Voter ID has mounted a campaign to bring the choice straight to the people by putting a constitutional amendment up for consideration in 2022.
  • The Maryland Board of Elections has finally settled a longstanding dispute with disability groups in the state that say the ballot-marking devices used by voters with disabilities require them to cast “segregated ballots.” These machines produced a ballot of a different size than those voters cast on paper. The MBOE has agreed to make several accommodations, including adding machines for use by disabled voters and instructing more voters to cast ballots on the same machines, which can be and often are used by all voters regardless of ability. Poll workers will also be instructed not to discourage the use of these devices.
  • The Department of Justice has entered a consent decree with the state of New Jersey that will make voter registration available at the state’s disability transportation services locations, which is required under federal law. At issue were widely used transportation systems, like NJ Transit Access Link and the Community Transportation network, which were not offering voter registration options. “The right to vote is a constitutional principle that forms a cornerstone of our democracy,” said acting U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig. “We appreciate that the State of New Jersey has worked with us to ensure that all New Jersey residents, including those with disabilities, enjoy convenient opportunities to register to vote.”
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