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Voting Rights Activists Think Biden's Actions Fall Short Of His Dire Warnings

President Biden speaks about voting rights at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Saul Loeb
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden speaks about voting rights at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

When President Biden gave a much-anticipated voting rights speech in Philadelphia this week, he called the fight against restrictive voting laws "the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War" and decried what he called a "21st century Jim Crow assault" on voting rights.

But a lot of people who turned out voters to elect Biden think he's failing them in the battle for voting rights so far.

LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said that Biden raised a number of meaningful points during the speech, but added that "the challenge for me is what he didn't say."

"If we're talking about a sense of urgency, like he laid out in his speech around democracy, this country has actually gone to war in the name of democracy," Brown said in an interview before meeting with Vice President Harris about voting at the White House on Friday, along with other Black women leaders. "The question is, how are we going to respond to what the Republicans are doing right now? And will the full weight of the White House be used to make sure that we get we secure permanent voting rights for our citizens?"

Many voting rights advocates say they believe Biden has devoted much more of his time and political capital to other priorities, pointing to the bipartisan infrastructure bill as a timely example. Biden huddled behind closed doors with lawmakers over that issue earlier in the week, pushing them to support the plan.

"He's still using his bully pulpit, he's still traveling to states, he's still giving speeches, he's still going to Congress and he's using the full power of his office to wrangle those votes," said Ezra Levin, the co-founder of the progressive group Indivisible. "If it works for roads and bridges, why shouldn't it work for democracy?"

Biden tried to re-energize the push for the pair of federal voting rights bills that have stalled in Congress, calling passage of the For The People Acta "national imperative."

"As soon as Congress passes the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, I will sign it and let the whole world see it," Biden said Tuesday. "That will be an important moment."

For Democrats, civil rights activists and progressives looking for the president to lead amid a nationwide wave of Republican-led bills intended to restrict voting access, the speech was a long time coming. But for some, it also fell woefully short of expectations.

"It felt like the president fully understands the threats to our democracy, but seems to be leaving the fight to everybody else," Levin said.

Impatience is growing over Biden's reluctance to scrap the filibuster

Many voting rights activists say that Biden's speech included what they consider a big omission: The president did not detail a legislative plan to move the bills forward. He also did not indicate any new strategies he might pursue to combat Republican voting laws on his own, or to ensure that the federal bills become law.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that voting rights would be "a cause of his presidency" and that the president would "use his time, use his platform to make sure he's speaking about, elevating it, engaging in it."

Psaki did not provide details of the president's future plans.

During Tuesday's speech, Biden talked about the work of the Justice Department to challenge voting laws passed in the states this year, as well as the expansion of the agency's voting rights division. Republicans argue that these voting laws are needed to cut down on voter fraud, despite no evidence that it is a widespread phenomenon.

The wave of state-level legislative action, coupled with court rulings that would make it harder to fight intrusions on voting rights, has led for more calls for federal government action.

There has been increasing pressure on Biden to endorse rolling back the filibuster to pass the For The People Act, as well as the legislation named for the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis that would restore protections from the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were dismantled by a Supreme Court decision in 2013.

"I didn't think filibuster was the 'F' word that we would be talking about this week," said Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project. "It was shocking that it wasn't even mentioned at all [in Biden's speech] given how masterfully the Republicans have used it to block civil rights legislation in the past."

Stephany Spaulding, a spokesperson for the Just Democracy coalition, warned that if Biden is unwilling to address the filibuster, it will lead to Black and brown voters being disenfranchised.

"Democracy itself is on the line," said Spaulding. "We are really on a path to authoritarianism, and that will be the legacy of Biden's presidency."

In an interview with NPR's Asma Khalid this week ahead of Biden's speech, Harris suggested that she has talked to senators about exceptions to the legislative filibuster but said she would not publicly negotiate an issue that the White House has insisted is up to the Senate.

"I believe that of all of the issues that the United States Congress can take up, the right to vote is the right that unlocks all the other rights," Harris said. "And for that reason, it should be one of its highest priorities."

Biden calls for a 'coalition' on voting rights

Biden seemed to acknowledge the congressional landscape, describing legislation as "one tool, but not the only tool." On Tuesday, he talked about the leading role Harris is playing in the administration's efforts, and seemed to shift his focus to next year's midterm elections and the need to build coalitions.

He focused on efforts to educate voters about the changing laws, register them to vote and mobilize them to turn out.

"We have to forge a coalition of Americans of every background and political party — the advocates, the students, the faith leaders, the labor leaders, the business executives — and raise the urgency of this moment," Biden said.

Several activists chafed at the suggestion that no coalition existed to fight for voting rights.

"The idea that we need to put together some kind of new coalition and go back to the drawing board — I don't know what he's talking about," said Levin of Indivisible. "If he wants a coalition, by all means, Mr. President, lead it. Let's see a fight for this."

Ufot said that while she was "grateful" that the president acknowledged the importance of grassroots activism, "community organizers can't whip votes in the Senate."

"But the president of the United States can," she added. "... I didn't exactly tune into the speech to hear about the work that we are already doing. I tuned in to hear what Biden-Harris was going to do, and I didn't hear that."

Several Black activists warned of the perils of Democrats taking the support of Black people for granted — a perennial issue that came to a head during the 2020 campaign. They suggested that the assault on the right to vote was a threat to their citizenship.

"It is the place that Black and brown Americans come to time and time again. We have full hope and faith in a functioning democracy. But when it comes to the reality of that playing out, the burden rests upon us as Black and brown voters, as Black and brown activists, to actually move the ball across the line," said Spaulding of Just Democracy. "... It's not us who need to work harder and strategize differently. It's Democrats and President Biden who need to use the power that we gave them."

Brown of Black Voters Matter put it more succinctly as she reflected on the role of Black voters in the last election:

"We knew what was at stake and we delivered. Our expectation is that the White House will deliver for us, just as we delivered the White House."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.