In early May, Vice President Harris sat down with members of several civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, to discuss what they saw as an assault on the right to vote in America. The meeting came amid rumblings by many in the civil rights community that Biden and his administration weren’t doing enough to thwart what activists fear could become the greatest disenfranchisement since Reconstruction.
According to an aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, Harris emerged from that meeting with a request for Biden: Let me spearhead the administration’s battle against Republican voting restrictions.
Now nearly a month later, during an event marking the centennial of the Tulsa race massacre, Biden formally announced Harris’s new portfolio on voting rights — placing the vice president squarely in the middle of a pitched partisan battle being fought at multiple levels of government.
“Every American has a right to have their voice heard at the ballot box, and no American should be kept from voting early, voting by mail, or voting at all,” Harris said in a statement after Biden’s announcement. “Our democracy is strongest when everyone participates, and it is weaker when people are left out.”
The assignment is the weightiest that Harris has undertaken so far in her groundbreaking vice presidency, on an issue that Democrats feel is existential and that the vice president has called “the work of democracy.” Biden decided that Harris would be an invaluable point person on an issue with implications for years to come, one White House official said.
But there are enduring questions about what can be done to advance an issue that has stagnated in the Senate and amid the threat of a Republican-led filibuster. At the same time, Harris is undertaking the difficult task of addressing the root causes of migration — another polarizing challenge with no easy policy solution. Harris leaves for Guatemala and Mexico on Sunday, her first international trip since the inauguration.
Harris’s ability to address access to the ballot box will probably influence how voters judge the tenure of the first female vice president and the first person of Black and Asian descent to hold the office. Harris, 56, is widely viewed as a potential heir apparent to Biden and a future leader of the Democratic Party.
Though Harris struggled to define herself during her failed presidential bid, addressing the assault on voting rights presents an opportunity to make inroads with civil rights leaders, state and local activists, lawmakers and corporate leaders ahead of what many see in the party as an inevitable future run for president.
But Harris will also have to manage expectations, as a perceived lack of accomplishment could stoke disappointment in the party and diminish her standing.
The political consequences don’t stop with Harris: A potentially protracted battle over voting rights could be an issue that motivates voters in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond. Just as with the border, changing voting laws have evoked strong feelings in the Democratic base, with many liberal activists long arguing that party leaders have not done enough to help the immigrants and people of color who have been hit hardest by inaction.
Harris will lobby her former Senate colleagues to push through two voting rights bills now stalled in the Senate, according to three White House aides who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. She will also travel around the country in coming weeks and meet with activists fighting for greater voting access while encouraging corporations, celebrities and cultural figures to exert whatever influence they have to defeat GOP voting restrictions.
Since January, Republicans have used former president Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of a stolen election to justify tighter restrictions on voting. Republican-led legislatures have considered hundreds of laws to make it harder to vote, with 14 states enacting restrictions so far. Among other things, the proposed measures in many states would limit mail and early in-person voting, enact stricter identification requirements and limit the hours polling places can be open. Experts say that the legislation would have an outsize effect on minority voters who are more likely to cast ballots for Democrats.
On Sunday, Democrats in Texas thwarted a state Senate bill that critics say would hinder the voting rights of Black people and other minorities, particularly those in under-resourced communities.
Georgia was among the first states to ratify voting restrictions, and for the White House, the ensuing outcry was instructional, an aide said. Major League Baseball opted to move its All-Star Game out of Atlanta. Leaders at Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola spoke out against the law, and a group of Black religious leaders called for a boycott of Home Depot for not speaking out more forcefully. Professional athletes and actors spoke out in a state that has sought to become a leading destination in the world for film and television production.
At the federal level, lawmakers have reached a stalemate on two voting rights bills, including one that bears the name of the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a prominent civil rights figure, said he hopes Harris uses her new assignment to promote voting rights in a public way.
“I think she’s the perfect person because she represents two elements of people that have had voting rights infringed upon: women and Blacks,” Sharpton said. “If she is the face of voting rights, and of voting bills being passed, her very presence is representative of the possibilities of having fair voting.”
He added, “I think she would be a very effective symbol,” in addition to working with senators. “She brings symbol and substance to the fight.”
Former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile, an ally of both Harris and Biden, said she thinks giving Harris the assignment will ensure that the battle over voting rights will be noticed by many Americans.
“Putting this in her portfolio will mean this issue will receive a lot of attention,” Brazile said.
Brazile said she felt that the Memorial Day holiday weekend, when the high-profile fight over voting laws in Texas erupted, was a significant moment for the way the administration thought about the issue.
Still, Harris will be hard-pressed to re-create the dealmaker role that Biden often played in the Obama administration.
While Harris worked with Republicans on some discrete issues — such as joining with Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) to advance a landmark anti-lynching bill and serving on the relatively apolitical Senate Intelligence Committee — her overall record was that of a committed Democrat. She embraced a liberal profile during her four years representing California in the Senate and did not make outreach across the aisle a centerpiece of her legislative career.
An index of bipartisanship compiled by the Lugar Center and Georgetown University rated Harris 94th of 100 senators in her last two years in Congress. A separate report card complied by GovTrack found that Harris joined fewer bipartisan bills than most other Senate Democrats. And her breakout public moments as a senator tended to come from the dais of the famously partisan Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, where she grilled Trump nominees.
As vice president, Biden served as an emissary to Republicans who were wary of negotiating directly with President Barack Obama, who was a politically toxic figure to the GOP base. “Biden was a classic old-school pol — maybe one of the last of the breed,” former House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) put it in his recent memoir.
Most famously, Biden struck an accord with Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the GOP leader, to resolve the “fiscal cliff” showdown on New Year’s Eve 2012 that threatened to deliver higher taxes for most Americans and curtail some unemployment payments.
As president, Biden has retained the reputation of bipartisanship built over his 36 years in the Senate, and he has taken steps to maintain that even as he pursues an unabashedly liberal agenda.
Still, on Tuesday, he spoke of the difficulty of passing sweeping reforms in his equity agenda, including alluding to two Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — who threaten to torpedo his agenda.
“I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why didn’t Biden get this done?’ ” he said. “Because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and two in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”
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