The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Civil rights leaders dial up pressure on White House to protect voting rights

Vice President Harris on July 8 announced the Democratic National Committee would make a $25 million investment for voter registration and education efforts. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty/The Washington Post)

Several top civil rights leaders, in what was described as a “a very candid, no-holds-barred meeting” that stretched nearly two hours, urged President Biden on Thursday to take more assertive action to combat Republican efforts to change voting laws around the country.

While several of the civil rights leaders described Biden as one of their allies, they also pressed him to do more, speak louder and make voting rights a central priority. Their exasperation with waiting on Washington to act was evident as they also pledged to embark on “a summer of activism, a summer of getting back in the streets,” evoking the 1960s movement that helped lead to the Voting Rights Act.

“If we don’t put the street heat on, it will not happen,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said that nearly every lever of government is being used to target the right to vote.

“When we look at what is happening in this nation,” he said, “we see an effort to impose a system of American apartheid.”

The renewed efforts come as Democratic voting legislation has stalled in Congress, as courts have ruled against their efforts, and as the party heads into the 2022 midterm elections facing historical trends that put their tenuous House and Senate majorities at risk.

The meeting at the White House, which came at Biden’s request, took place several hours after Vice President Harris announced that the Democratic National Committee was making a $25 million infusion into efforts to expand voting.

“This is the fight of our nation’s lifetime,” Harris said during remarks on voting rights, referring to new state laws and attempts to pass two bills in Congress.

“I want to make clear that this is about all voters . . . this is not about Democrats or Republicans; this is about Americans,” Harris said. “We want to help you vote, and we want to help make sure your vote is counted. And that is because our democracy is strongest when everyone participates, and it is weaker . . . when people are left out.”

Civil rights leaders are largely in agreement with the Biden administration about what changes need to occur, and have been aligned on pushing pieces of legislation that would expand voting rights. But during a meeting that stretched nearly twice as long as expected, they pressed Biden and Harris to take on more forceful tactics — and pledged to do the same themselves.

“We must have the president use his voice, use his influence, use his power — and use what he clearly understands about this moment,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The president understands us to be in a moment of peril in terms of our democracy. And that means that we have to put all the options on the table, figure out what can work, keep talking, keep pressing and move forward.”

Biden several times in recent weeks has spoken about making voting rights a more prominent issue, saying that he would travel the country to make the case for sweeping new changes and combating new GOP-led laws.

“I think that it is critical that we make a distinction between voter suppression and suspension,” he said last week, referring to laws that could not only make voting harder but could also empower elected officials to change election outcomes.

“The ability of a state legislative body to come along and vote — their legislature — vote to change who is declared the winner, I find to be somewhat astounding,” Biden added. “I’ll have much more to say about that because I plan on speaking extensively on voting rights and — as well as going on the road on this issue.”

There have also been growing calls for changing the filibuster rules, which would allow Democrats to use their narrow majority to pass voting reform legislation, among other agenda items, on a party-line vote. To do so, they would need to convince moderates such as Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) who oppose changing the filibuster rules.

Sharpton said before the meeting that one of his concerns is that Biden isn’t using the full powers of the presidency, and that he needs to explore a “workaround in terms of the filibuster.”

“I do not think this president wants history to say that in his presidency, there was the continued weakening of voting rights for people that put him and Vice President Harris in office,” he said on MSNBC. “He can effectively try to use his power as the chief executive of this country — one with the bully pulpit, two with dealing with Democrats and trying to talk about whether they should go around that 60-vote necessity to really dealing with voting rights.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier Thursday that Biden still had confidence that some legislative solution could be found, even though Republicans have opposed his party’s plans and stopped it last month in the Senate.

“He’s an optimist by nature; otherwise, he wouldn’t be president of the United States,” she said. “So he continues to believe that there should be a pathway forward for federal legislation.”

The $25 million initiative that Harris announced earlier in the day will go toward the DNC’s “I Will Vote” campaign to enhance voter education, expand voter registration and attempt to make voting more accessible. The spending is in addition to $20 million that had previously been announced by the DNC.

It follows one of the most contested elections in American history, with former president Donald Trump and his allies continuing to falsely claim that he won the presidency.

“In 2020, more Americans turned out to vote than ever before in the middle of a pandemic,” Harris said. “America, you masked up. You mailed in your ballots. You did not let anything stop you from making your voice heard.”

Harris made the announcement during a speech at Howard University, her alma mater and a historically Black college. It was a backdrop meant to demonstrate the importance of Black voters in the Democratic coalition. Many of the new voting laws, Democrats say, are targeting Black voters and aiming to suppress turnout.

“The Republican Party has made unprecedented efforts to keep people from voting,” Jaime Harrison, chair of the DNC, said in a statement. “But throughout history and all across the country — from Democratic state legislators in Texas to the DNC’s case before the Supreme Court — Democrats have shown we are fighters and we will not give up our right to vote.”

The Republican National Committee on Thursday said Democrats were pushing “lies” about the new state voting measures and claimed internal polls showed the public in favor of some common provisions in them, such as requiring voter identification.

“Democrats refuse to join Republicans in supporting common-sense policies like voter ID, because their sole agenda is more power and partisan control,” RNC spokeswoman Danielle Álvarez said.

The Pew Research Center in April found majorities of voters support requiring voter identification, but also found majority support for measures to make voter registration and voting easier. And a Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this month found twice as many adults who said it is more important to pass new laws “making it easier for people to vote lawfully” as those who said it’s more important to pass new laws “making it harder for people to vote fraudulently.”

In campaigns around the country, Republican candidates are increasingly focused on raising doubts about the 2020 election, with at least a third of current federal candidates embracing Trump’s false claims about his defeat.

The Supreme Court last week upheld two Arizona voting restrictions that a lower court had said discriminated against minority voters, illustrating some of the challenges in overturning such laws in court.

The Justice Department also recently announced a federal lawsuit against Georgia over statewide voting restrictions that federal authorities allege purposefully discriminate against Black Americans.

“We intend to make mobilizations around the country a theme that we pursue,” said Wade Henderson, interim president of the Leadership Conference for Civil & Human Rights. “So this is not simply about sitting in our chairs waiting for the president to rescue the country. In this time of peril, we intend to be active participants in pressing Congress to act and then providing the kind of mobilization at the street level that will be essential to make it happen.”

Eugene Scott contributed to this report.