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President Joe Biden in Philadelphia

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about voting rights at the National Constitution Center on July 13, 2021 in Philadelphia. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

150 Voting Rights Groups Warn Biden Against Attempting to 'Out-Organize Voter Suppression'

"Every American deserves and should be able to rely on a baseline level of voting access... Only passage of both the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act can make this aspiration a reality."

Julia Conley

Voting rights advocates on Friday said the Biden administration risks alienating the very organizers whose tireless work was instrumental in delivering the White House and both chambers of Congress for Democrats in 2020, as they pushed the administration to abandon the notion that the party can combat Republican attacks on voting rights through get-out-the-vote efforts rather than congressional action.

"Every American deserves and should be able to rely on a baseline level of voting access, free from efforts to block their path to the voting booth or dilute or nullify their votes. Only passage of both the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act can make this aspiration a reality."
—150 voting rights groups

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights led 150 organizations in writing to President Joe Biden on Thursday, highlighting his recent remarks in a speech in Philadelphia in which he said "our democracy is in peril" and contrasting his message of urgency with the White House's voting rights strategy, which is largely focused on organizing on the ground.

According to the New York Times, White House officials have assured voting rights advocates in recent weeks that it is possible to "out-organize voter suppression" including at least 30 laws that have been passed in 18 Republican-controlled states so far this year to restrict access to the ballot.

Critics say Biden's call for a "new coalition" of voting rights advocates working to ensure people know where and when to vote ahead of the 2022 midterm elections and to target voters in Black and Latino communities falls far short of what is needed to fight Republican efforts, which include potential gerrymandering across the South, according to Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice.

"Aside from being inaccurate," Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) said of the White House and Democratic National Committee's plan to "out-organize" the GOP attacks on voting rights, the strategy "takes for granted the black and brown communities that bear the brunt of voter suppression, and who worked to elect leaders who would protect them."

Other political observers and organizers on social media expressed anger over the suggestion that after helping propel Biden and the Democrats to victory in 2020, voting rights groups are again being asked to protect access to the ballot while the White House fails to push for far-reaching pro-democracy legislation.

"Dear White House and Senate Dems," tweeted Sam Barton, who has worked with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and on several campaigns for local and national office. "I have worked 100+ hours a week organizing and campaigning non-stop for y'all since 2016... Why should we fight so hard to put you in power if you won’t wield it?"

Instead of looking to on-the-ground activists, the signatories of Thursday's letter (pdf) said, Biden must work with Congress to ensure voting rights legislation including the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is passed by "whatever means necessary."

"While we support the notion of a broad-based coalition of advocates, we cannot and should not have to organize our way out of the attacks and restrictions on voting that lawmakers are passing and proposing at the state level," wrote the groups. "Nor can we litigate our way out of this threat to democracy. Nothing can serve as a substitute for your direct engagement and leadership in efforts to secure the passage of these critical voting rights bills."

The For the People Act would ban partisan gerrymandering and strengthen voting protections in communities of color nationwide, among other provisions, while the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which until 2013 kept jurisdictions from making discriminatory changes to their voting rules. 

The groups and other critics called on the president to support eliminating the filibuster, which would allow passage of the legislation with a simple majority, and to pressure conservative Democrats including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—who has joined Republicans in claiming the For the People Act is "partisan" despite the broad popularity of its provisions—to support the bills.

"Talking about grass-roots organizing, talking about voter registration is important, and we are grateful for the amplification of what our work is—and I want to be clear that that's our work," Nsé Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, told the Times. "That's what we've been doing. That's what got us to this moment. That's what gave us a Biden-Harris administration. And now we need them to do their jobs. I can't write legislation. I can't whip votes. I don't have 47 years in that body, in the United States Senate. I'm not the president of that body. But they are."

Biden has worked closely with both parties to reach bipartisan deals on infrastructure and spending proposals, but the signatories of the letter warned the president against chasing the "ideal of bipartisan cooperation on voting rights."

 "We must remember that at critical times in our history, one party has been forced to act alone in securing the fundamental democratic rights of American citizens, including Congress' passage of both the 14th and 15th Amendments," said the groups. 

"Every American deserves and should be able to rely on a baseline level of voting access, free from efforts to block their path to the voting booth or dilute or nullify their votes," they added. "Only passage of both the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act can make this aspiration a reality."

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