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'We need to see outcomes': Voting rights activists demand more action from Biden

Before Biden's big speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, some see a president playing catch-up on a cause they view as make-or-break for American democracy.
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WASHINGTON — Voting rights advocates are anxiously awaiting President Joe Biden’s speech Tuesday in Atlanta about overhauling election laws, fearing that time is running out for action.

They're clamoring to hear a viable plan to get major legislation to the president's desk to combat restrictive voting laws in Republican-led states and to safeguard election integrity in the future, as former President Donald Trump continues to spread conspiracy theories about his defeat in 2020.

What they want to see: A forceful case for the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. A strategy to get it to his desk. Use of his bully pulpit to make the case for changing Senate rules to overcome a Republican filibuster. The same level of dedication he showed in passing his bipartisan infrastructure law.

What they don’t want to see: An abstract case for protecting ballot access without a plan to pass the bills. A speech that lacks follow-up engagement or pressure on holdouts. Any suggestion that he’d be willing to tinker with the rules of the electoral counting process and call that a victory.

“There’s nothing more urgent. The administration and Congress must use all the tools at their disposal to get voting rights across the finish line,” said Derrick Johnson, the president of NAACP. “We need to see outcomes.”

Publicly, advocates are standing with Biden to put up a unified front. But privately there is concern that the White House is playing catch-up against a ticking clock after relegating voting rights to a lower-priority issue through 2021.

“They’re coming to this very late. I think they’ve been sucked into caring about this rather than having had an affirmative strategy around this from the start,” said a prominent voting activist, who requested anonymity to candidly voice frustrations with the White House. “They are chasing a priority instead of setting it.”

“Even after Jan. 6, they continued to think of this as a second tier set of issues. It was months and months of activist pressure and donor pressure and pressure from the hill, especially Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, that began to break that down,” the activist said.

'Spreading his big lie'

The Freedom to Vote and John Lewis bills would transform the landscape by enshrining a series of voting rights guarantees across the U.S. They have the support of a majority of senators to pass but no realistic path to 60 votes. Two Democrats are dug in on their opposition to a filibuster carve-out: Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Unless they change their positions and embrace a major overhaul of filibuster rules, Biden’s efforts would be doomed to failure in the 50-50 Senate.

Some advocates want to see Biden and Democratic leaders apply more pressure, particularly on Sinema, using leverage like setting committee assignments or withholding funds for their next re-election bids. Manchin, who hails from ruby-red West Virginia, is seen as less susceptible to intraparty pressure.

Indivisible co-founder Ezra Levin said he hopes Biden’s speech signals “a period of more intense commitment” on the issue of voting rights.

“We’re looking for him to do what he didn’t do last summer in his speech in Philly — go beyond naming the problem and instead actually explain what he’s going to do to get the two democracy bills passed,” he said, calling for “a combination of rallying the public and behind-the-scenes lobbying” from Biden.

“Right now, more Republicans think democracy is in danger than Democrats do — and that’s because the de facto leader of the Republican Party hasn’t stopped spreading his Big Lie, while the leader of the Democratic Party has engaged with the issue only sporadically,” he said.

'Clearly needs fixing'

Arkadi Gerney, the executive director of the liberal Hub Project, called on Biden to make clear his administration will be “using all of their capital to urge the Senate to update its rules” so that the Freedom to Vote Act can pass by a majority vote.

Gerney added that changes to the Electoral Count Act, which are being considered by members of both parties, are a red herring — and may do more harm than good. “It would be a historic failure if the only thing that came out of this Congress was further entrenching the electoral college, which is an anti-democratic feature, not a strength of our democracy,” he said.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told NBC News that he's open to new legislation clarifying the vice president's role in the electoral count process.

“It’s a separate issue but it is directly related to what happened on Jan. 6 of 2021. I think it’s worth discussing because it clearly needs fixing. It has nothing to do with what we’re doing this week,” he said.

Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for End Citizens United, a left-leaning PAC, said they hope Biden pressures the Senate to "do whatever it takes to pass these bills and not let politics or arguments over process stand in the way."

“But more important than what he says is that he and the administration engage with the Senate and work to pass the bill with the same effort and vigor that they put into passing infrastructure,” he said.

Despite the long odds, liberal groups are not giving up and are putting resources toward the cause.

End Citizens United and Let America Vote Action Fund will launch a $2.8 million ad campaign, spending $500,000 nationally and the rest in key states to boost the Freedom to Vote Act, Bozzi said.

The ad campaign, first reported by NBC News, includes $1 million on ads in Arizona — including one in Spanish — calling on Sinema to defend the "freedom to vote," and another to thank Sen. Mark Kelly, the state's other Democratic senator. It includes $800,000 in West Virginia praising Manchin for backing the Freedom to Vote Act, an attempt to give him cover to change the filibuster rules.

Bozzi said it'll spend $230,000 in Nevada thanking Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and $280,000 in New Hampshire thanking Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H. Both face re-election this year.