But if Biden has been right in saying that our democracy’s health depends on the political system demonstrating its capacity to undertake ambitious projects, our democracy’s success also requires — well, that it remain a democracy.
That’s in question as Republican states (18 at last count) enact laws to limit access to the ballot and, in many cases, corrupt the election process itself by undercutting independent, nonpartisan ballot counting.
Thus the importance of Friday’s White House meeting, in which Biden joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to craft a strategy to enact political reform and voting rights bills.
The meeting reflected a growing awareness inside the Biden camp that it cannot hang back and let democracy legislation founder while offering false hope that political organizing can overcome voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering.
As Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) told me, after Biden’s “intimate engagement” in negotiating the bipartisan infrastructure bill with the Senate, the administration cannot now claim the filibuster is purely that chamber’s business.
Reflecting a view widely held by civil rights leaders, Jones argued that Biden must match the energy he devoted to infrastructure with an equally spirited push on voting rights, including — if needed — a willingness to back a change in Senate rules.
A White House statement after the meeting did not mention the filibuster. But it declared that “passing legislation to protect against voter suppression, electoral subversion, dark money and partisan gerrymandering” was a “moral imperative.”
Jones described Pelosi as “enormously strong” on the issue because she “gets that everything is at stake.” That was the message the speaker sent after the White House encounter: “This is of the highest priority for us.”
Schumer, too, has gone on offense, hosting efforts by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Raphael G. Warnock (Ga.), Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and others to write a new version of the political reform bill rooted in many of Manchin’s suggestions for easier ballot access. The bill will also include new provisions to try to stop partisan bodies from pushing aside local election officials and nullifying election results.
Manchin has resisted reforming the Senate’s filibuster rules to allow passage of a democracy bill, and Sunday on CNN, he said he “can’t imagine a carve-out” for voting rights.
But Warnock, who is also an Atlanta pastor, has been preaching the democracy gospel in regular meetings with him. The freshman senator has signaled his party’s leaders that his cooperation on other issues depends on their willingness to protect the ballot.
“There’s nothing more important than getting voting rights done this Congress,” Warnock told an Atlanta radio station last week. “Voting rights are preservative of all other rights."
Equally important to many House Democrats, including Pelosi, is preserving the original For the People Act’s commitment to creating a small donor matching fund system for elections to the House of Representatives and the presidency.
Advocates of reforming the campaign money system argue that these provisions will make any democracy bill more popular. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the lead sponsor of the For the People legislation that passed the House, noted in an interview that voters are frustrated by the influence of “big money corruption,” and "the money reforms respond to where people’s anger and cynicism about politics are directed.”
There is another reason for urgency — “the shot clock is ticking,” Sarbanes said — because the Census Bureau is scheduled to send 2020 population data to the states by Aug. 16 so they can redraw congressional and legislative district lines.
All the reform bills would outlaw partisan gerrymandering, but if those provisions are not put in place quickly, Democrats might see their narrow House majority wiped out by aggressively partisan maps in Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina alone.
Senators working on a new draft know this. Klobuchar reported progress last week and pointedly observed that she and her colleagues wouldn’t be going to all this effort if they believed the bill was destined to be blocked by Senate rules.
Defenders of voting rights can overcome — again. But as was true with the original Voting Rights Act more than half a century ago, they will need a president ready to keep his eyes on the prize.