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What is the plan to advance voting rights legislation?

Joe Biden standing outdoors at a lectern, with a U.S. flag behind him

President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd at the Atlanta University Center Consortium on Jan 11.

Megan Varner / Getty Images

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

This week, President Joe Biden gave a speech on voting rights from the Atlanta University Center Consortium, on the grounds of Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College. Like many people, I have spent much of the week reading and listening to analysis of the speech and Democrats’ plan to advance voting rights. It seems that I’m not alone in wondering just what that plan is. 

Biden’s speech was filled with passionate rhetoric, which left some in his own party thinking he may have gone too far while many others thinking he didn’t go nearly far enough. During the speech he made clear his support for filibuster reform, something that will surely be needed if any voting rights legislation is going to pass the Senate, but he failed to make clear which specific reforms he supported.  

“The question we keep asking ourselves from a political perspective is why? What are they doing?” asked Jake Sherman, founder of Punchbowl News

Professor Rick Hasen called Biden’s speech “too little too late” on Slate’s What’s Next. “Over the summer Biden could have been pushing voting rights,” he said. “He could have been giving a speech a week.” 

“The numbers are the numbers,” said NPR White House Correspondent Ayesha Roscoe on NPR’s Politics Podcast. “It seems like it’s going to take some real legislative maneuvering if Biden is going to be able to get something done on voting rights.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Biden could better use his bully pulpit to fight for voting rights. I contrasted his relative silence to President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D) , who was a master of using his presidential power to force change for civil rights. “What do you want left after you, when you die?” he famously asked George Wallace. “Do you want a great big marble announcement that reads, ‘George Wallace — he built.’ Or, do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh caliche soil that reads, ‘George Wallace — He hated.”

Biden clearly tried to take a page from that book in his speech. “So, I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered?” he said. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?  Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?  Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

Not as vivid, certainly, but it gets the same point across. Biden’s speech was well-written and conveyed a clear intent to reform voting even if it lacked in specifics. But — as LBJ repeatedly demonstrated — intermittent speeches are not enough. Speeches must be backed by powerful leadership, clear direction, and a brazen willingness to place civil rights at the forefront of the country’s priorities.

Late in the week, Democrats pulled some creative maneuvering: They subbed out most of the space-related language from a NASA bill, replaced it with the language from both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. While the move prevents it from being blocked by an initial filibuster and will force senators to record their votes on filibuster reform on the record, Republicans can still block this bill from final consideration and likely will.

There is no more of a plan for filibuster reform now than there was before Biden’s speech. And, with few exceptions, Biden could have given the exact same speech nearly a year ago with few necessary changes. The same is certainly true for the speech Vice President Kamala Harris gave before Biden took the stage. She called for the Senate to act on this moment so that we can tell future generations “we acted with the urgency that this moment demands.” A valid sentiment, save that we’ve been living in this moment for more than a year.

The only reasonable path forward — based on, you know, math — is for Democrats to choose to limit their bills, and attempt to achieve bipartisan support (or even full party support) for smaller steps forward. The question is no longer “Which voting measure should we pass?” it is “Can we pass any voting measures at all?”

In Other Voting News

  • This is still weird to type, but cash is truly flowing into secretaries of state races — at least for Republicans. The Republican State Leadership Committee, which manages these races, raised a whopping $14.3 million in the fourth quarter of 2021 — making an annual total of $33.3 in an off election year. Democrats, meanwhile, raised just $1 million during the first six months of 2021. 
  • One month ahead of what is expected to be a low-turnout primary in Wisconsin, Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Michael Bohren has banned the state’s use of drop boxes for casting ballots. The plaintiffs, represented by attorneys from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, argue that state law does not specifically permit ballots to be returned in drop boxes, and Bohren agreed. Drop boxes have long been used in Wisconsin but their use increased dramatically in 2020. The ruling will almost certainly be appealed. 
  • We tried to warn them about this, but here we go: The clerk in Travis County, Texas, home of Austin, says that half of absentee ballot applications have so far been rejected as a result of the state’s new law. As we wrote way back in July (JULY), the law required voters to submit either part of their Social Security number or their driver’s license number to prove their identity when submitting an absentee ballot application. The problem? Nearly 2 million Texans don’t have both on file, meaning they have to guess between the two. Mismatches are rejected. 
  • A grand jury in Mesa County, Colorado, will consider allegations of official misconduct and tampering with county election equipment levied against Tina Peters, the county clerk who leaked secure voting data to Mike Lindell. The grand jury decision came the same day that Peters filed for re-election. 
  • Indiana has become the latest state to require paper ballot backups. A new law requires 10 percent of all paperless voting systems to be replaced or reconfigured to include paper by the summer of 2024. The state was one of eight that used at least some machines with paperless voting machines in 2020. 
  • Native American leaders expressed their concerns over voting laws in Arizona this week, especially over Senate Bill 1133, which would bar all-mail elections. “Many of our elders and those living in remote communities (would) have to drive hundreds of miles and several hours to cast their ballots,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. 

Good News of the Week

The safety of election workers took center stage this week in several states. In Washington, the Senate passed legislation that would protect election workers. The Senate unanimously approved a bill that would make it a Class C Felony to threaten an election worker, with violations potentially resulting in a five-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine. The measure now moves to the House.

A bill in Maine aimed at protecting election workers appears to be garnering wide support in the state. LD1821, sponsored by Rep. Bill White (D-Waterville), would make threats against elections officials a criminal offense. “Those who toil to make our elections in Maine safe and secure should be safe and secure themselves, we owe them nothing less,” said bill co-sponsor Rep. Lois Reckitt (D-South Portland).

And finally, in Michigan, in one of the first known successful prosecutions of someone threatening an election official, Mathew Smith, 24, was sentenced to 12 months’ probation, was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service, was fined $650, and was required to write an essay on the effects of bullying others. Smith, chairman of the Genesee County Republican Party and a member of the Davison Community Schools Board of Education was sentenced after pleading guilty to malicious use of a telephone for making a harassing phone call to Houghton County Clerk Jennifer Kelly.

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