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Organizers refuse to let up after Senate GOP blocks voting rights bills

Across the country, grassroots organizers are registering voters, recruiting lawyers and keeping the pressure on lawmakers to pass federal voting rights legislation.
Jamaal Bowman
Demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Capitol to urge the Senate to pass voting rights legislation Jan. 19, 2022.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Tayhlor Coleman was in her van last week when she got the news that the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act had collapsed in the Senate.

She had been watching the bill closely as she drove around Texas in her van registering people to vote. 

The defeat was disappointing for the organizer and Democratic strategist, but not surprising. 

“I wish I could say I was shocked. Joe Manchin said nobody’s trying to make it harder for people to vote. You’re not going to tell me that’s true,” Coleman said. “Organizers should keep being loud about what they’re seeing happen and really make it plain for folks that we’re not going to sweep this under the rug.” 

Coleman has spent the first weeks of this year engaging with residents of the state and registering people to vote. So far, she’s registered several voters in Harris County, which includes Houston, and is working to do the same in the remaining 253 Texas counties. To accomplish this, she will have to undergo training and take a test in each county to become a volunteer deputy registrar. 

In a state with more restrictive voting laws on the books, she said Congress failing to pass sweeping federal voting legislation only makes her efforts more difficult. 

Senate Republicans, with the help of Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, voted last week to block a pair of voting rights bills that would have helped combat voter suppression by everything from creating a national automatic voter registration to banning partisan gerrymandering.

The defeat marks a severe setback for federal voting rights legislation. In the wake of the vote, President Joe Biden, who has promised to take meaningful action on voting rights, said he was “profoundly disappointed that the United States Senate has failed to stand up for our democracy.” 

Last week’s defeat also served as a blow to both the fight against new voting restrictions and Democrats’ efforts to unite around a cause. Still, organizers told NBC News that Black and other minority voters will suffer the most from the defeat, and it’s up to these grassroots groups to continue fighting voter restrictions in the absence of proactive legislation. 

Fenika Miller, an activist from Houston County, Georgia, who works with Black Voters Matter, a nonprofit advocacy group, said they work in 75 counties in the Peach State with door-to-door canvassing, phone banking and building relationships with residents to increase voter turnout. This work, she said, will continue whether voting rights legislation is passed or not. 

“Our work is 365. The issues that affect Black people don’t start or stop on Election Day or based on a single policy,” she said. “They’re closing polling locations, criminalizing line-warming — there are unlimited challenges to voters. This is to keep people from exercising their democratic franchise. But, time again, Black people have shown that we are resilient.” 

Along with connecting with voters locally, Black Voters Matter has launched a letter-writing campaign to help people across the U.S. write to their senators and urge them to pass federal voting legislation.

Meanwhile, organizers from Indivisible Illinois have set their focus on “massive voter registration and massive voter engagement” in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan to combat the lack of voter protections following the Senate vote. They are holding a virtual voter registration training for the public, as well as a phone-banking session for Wisconsin voters, they said in an email.

Evelyn Malone, chairperson of Indivisible's northwest chapter, said the organizers had an emergency meeting after the Senate vote last week to set a plan in place for the months ahead as the midterm elections approach. Malone, who is training to become a deputy voter registrar, said the group will work to register other members as deputy voter registrars.

“We’re going to be very intentional, not just about getting people registered to vote, but actually building a partnership with them,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t aware of the laws that were just denied. We’ve been inundated with Covid, so we can’t do canvassing right now, but we’re going to do a lot of phone banking.” 

Billy Honor, the organizing director of the New Georgia Project, a grassroots voting rights organization, also emphasized the importance of getting the word out about the defeated legislation. He said that, beginning next month, the group will launch a “mass movement for election protection,” prioritizing everything from monitoring election boards to training lawyers in election work. In short, he said, the group is “ramping up” its voting advocacy efforts. 

“We’re going to our constituency and saying, ‘Here are the ways you could get involved.’ People can get involved in our poll protection program. We need people to show up and make sure that everything goes well. We’ll need people to show up and offer water. So we call this a civic ministry of presence. We’ll be recruiting lawyers to be ready for legal advocacy and if there’s litigation that needs to be filed.”

Last year, Georiga Gov. Brian Kemp passed a swath of election regulations, and said recently that he would not advocate for changes to the law. Honor said the group will continue putting pressure on Kemp and other elected officials for voting rights. 

Honor said that the group wishes the people of Georgia didn't have to go to such great lengths to defend their right to vote, "But at the same time, we’re resilient people that we know will rise to the occasion. So we’re ready for the fight.”

Last week’s vote comes amid the once-a-decade redistricting process, which experts have called a high-stakes process with Black communities in several states at high risk of being gerrymandered and, thus, left with little voting power. Republican legislators in at least a dozen states enacted voting restrictions in 2021, delivering a blow to voting rights advocates ahead of midterm elections. 

Voting rights advocates have criticized Biden’s remarks on the issue before the Senate vote last week as too little too late, calling on him to both present a viable plan for voting rights and also urge the Senate to update the filibuster rules.

Meanwhile, GOP-led voting restrictions across the country are well documented. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, recently announced his plan for election police, appointing 52 people to “investigate, detect, apprehend, and arrest anyone for an alleged violation of election laws,” according to The Washington Post. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, last year signed into law a sweeping bill that imposes several restrictions on voting. A video leaked last year revealed that Texas Republicans were working to recruit an “army” of 10,000 poll workers and watchers to go into Black communities and other communities of color in Houston to fight what they claim to be voter fraud.

Maurice Mitchell, a social movement strategist for the Movement for Black Lives and the national director of the Working Families Party, highlighted that social justice victories have historically been hard fought for Black communities. He added that grassroots organizing is key in advocates’ next steps. 

“We need to be on the streets, we need to protest, of course, we need to organize our vote,” he said. “It’s an all-in commitment. We need to be at the polls, we need to agitate, we need to be unafraid to tell the truth and call folks and power out — Republicans, Democrats, Independents, whoever. And we need to be grounded in the actual, day-to-day realities of our people. We need to organize like we always have."

In addition to grassroots organizing, Mitchell cautions that the pressure should not be taken off federal lawmakers. 

“But my caution is,” he added, “simply because we can and will organize as we have historically, that should not alleviate the pressure that should be placed on congressional Democrats and the Senate majority to get the job done. Or pressure on the White House to continue elevating this issue. And we shouldn’t leave Republicans off the hook.”

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