'Use your soapbox': Activists urge Biden to step up voting rights push as latest bill fails in Senate

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has called the fight for voting rights "the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War."

But nine months into his presidency, Biden and Democrats have made no headway to overcome Republican opposition to reform voting, failing to override voting restrictions that several GOP-led state legislatures adopted after the 2020 election. 

The latest setback came Wednesday after Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block advancement and debate of the Freedom to Vote Act, Democratic-backed legislation to create federal rules to protect mail-in voting, expand early voting, ensure same-day voting registration and make Election Day a federal holiday. The bill failed by a 49-51 vote, with Republicans voting unanimously to block voting-rights legislation for the third time this year.

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The White House says Biden is committed to stopping the "systematic assault" on voting rights. But civil rights leaders have grown increasingly frustrated, arguing Biden needs to make a louder case and get behind overhauling the filibuster so that Democrats can pass voting rights legislation without Republicans in the evenly divided Senate. 

"At the end of the day, if we don't make this happen, it's going to rest at the feet of not only the president but members of the Senate," Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said in an interview with USA TODAY. "Democrats need to stand up and protect our democracy, and anything less is a failure."

Johnson was more pointed in a statement after the vote. "Don't forget that Black voters landed a victory for this president and this Congress, so don't fail us again," he said.

Martin Luther King III, a human rights advocate and son of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., said he wants to see Biden "weigh in on the issue of the filibuster because he was in the Senate" and that he needs to "come out and say 'We've got to move beyond this.'"

Biden "has to use the full fledged power of the office of the presidency," King III said. "Our democracy is in peril."

White House says Dems must find 'alternative path forward'

Just before the Senate's action, Biden said the right to vote is "under unrelenting assault," calling the issue "urgent" in a statement and slamming Republicans' move to block the bill as "unconscionable."

Democrats and voting-rights advocates have watched in dismay as Trump continues to push "the big lie," advancing baseless conspiracy theories to falsely argue the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Few Republicans in Washington have distanced themselves from Trump, and Republican state lawmakers in Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia and other battleground states have openly embraced Trump's falsehoods and supported "audits" to question election results.

Some progressives worry failure to advance legislation to overturn Republican measures at the state level – actions that limited mail-in voting, decreased early voting and eliminated Election Day voter registration in certain states – could help Republicans reclaim power in the 2022 midterm elections and Trump win back the White House in 2024.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Democrats will have to determine an "alternative path forward" after the defeat of the latest legislation – a scaled-back version of the For the People Act, which Republicans in the Senate blocked in June via the filibuster. The bill would have also allowed voter ID, a policy typically backed by Republicans. 

Psaki didn't elaborate on possible alternatives, pointing to future conversations with members of Congress to determine the path. She touted steps Biden has taken on his own, such as signing an executive order in March directing the federal government to promote voting access and directing Vice President Kamala Harris to oversee the protection of voting rights.

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The White House has tried to deflect the criticism of civil rights advocates, saying the president shares their frustrations and arguing it's Republicans – not Biden – standing in the way.

"Are (Republicans) going to play a role in making it easier and more accessible to vote? Are they going to protect this fundamental right? Or are they going to continue to be obstreperous," Psaki said this week, ahead of Wednesday's vote, when asked about the frustration of activists. "So it's really up to them."

Psaki added the president believes "this question is really now on Republicans and what role they're going to play in history."

President Joe Biden delivers an update on the COVID-19 response and vaccination program, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, in Washington.

But that hasn't satisfied progressives or activists who note that Democrats have control in the House and Senate, albeit by slim majorities, and the White House.

"It's not on (the) GOP. Dems have majority," Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal online publication Daily Kos, said on Twitter. "They either use it, or it’s on them."

Democrats face a possible shrinking window to pass legislation on voting rights and Biden's social-spending agenda with the 2022 midterm elections looming next year.

Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, a progressive political action organization said Biden needs to “step up and use the bully pulpit to get this done.”

He pointed to Biden meeting with lawmakers to get his infrastructure and budget bills over the finish line and said Biden needs to “flex his muscle” and dedicate the same effort to voting rights.

Joe Kennedy III, a former congressman from Massachusetts and a co-founder of Give Us the Ballot, a micro-donation campaign funding the fight for voting rights, said Biden and congressional Democrats need to be “able to walk and chew gum at the same time” on passing Biden's agenda and voting rights.

Passing infrastructure and a budget “will be major achievements for this administration, but you can’t turn around and say, ‘on our watch, conservatives were successful at a generational tilting of the scales with regards to access to ballot boxes.'”

Activists point to filibuster: 'This is judgment time' 

Activists and civil rights leaders point to the filibuster above all. Liberal demonstrators held signs demanding "No More Excuses – Voting Rights Now!" at a protest outside the White House Tuesday that led to arrests of 25 activists.

“We came to Washington to tell President Biden one thing," said Christina Harvey, executive director of Stand Up America, a progressive backed advocacy group. "Use your soapbox to end the Jim Crow filibuster and protect our freedom to vote."

The filibuster is a legislative tool that allows the Senate to continue debating on an issue and not allow it to go to a vote. There needs to be 60 senators — so in this Congress, 10 Republicans joining all 50 Democratic-voting senators — to bypass the filibuster.

Biden has endorsed he Senate returning to the "talking filibuster," which would require senators to talk on the floor continuously to hold up legislation. But he has opposed eliminating the filibuster and hasn't backed a carve-out for voting rights legislation.

Psaki would not say whether Biden would reconsider his position on the filibuster following Wednesday's vote.

Martin Luther King III speaks during the March on Washington, Friday Aug. 28, 2020, in Washington, on the 57th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Standing in the way of blowing up the filibuster are Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who have opposed changes to the current rules. Biden is negotiating with the same two moderate senators as he seeks their support to pass his "build back better" domestic spending agenda.

"There must be a reality check," the NAACP's Johnson said. "The Senate must to do its job. If you could not get 10 Republicans to vote to investigate an insurrection, an act of treason against this country, you will not get 10 Republicans to support voting rights."

Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy at Indivisible, a movement that engages in progressive advocacy and electoral work, said Senate Democrats “have got to show a spine” about “holdouts on filibuster reform.” 

Will Manchin "show more loyalty to our democracy and our country or are you going to show more loyalty to an arcane Senate rule that is arbitrarily blocking your own legislation from being passed?" she asked. Manchin is an original sponsor of the Freedom to Vote Act. 

But Manchin reiterated this month that "nothing's changing" about his position on the filibuster,.

Sean Eldridge, president of Stand Up America, said Biden and Senate Democrats "face a clear choice: protect the Jim Crow filibuster, or protect voting rights. It is one or the other.”

In addition, Hatcher-Mays and other advocates wish to see Biden “walk out to a podium and say into a microphone, ‘Enough of this, enough of the filibuster. It is not helping. It is only harming this country.’ His former boss, Barack Obama, has said that the filibuster is a relic of Jim Crow. [Biden] should endorse that statement.”

During the 20th century, Southern senators supportive of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation and white supremacy used the filibuster to vehemently oppose any expansion of educational, economic or voting rights for Black Americans.

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“Something has to be done about this,” Hatcher-Mays said. “Democrats must, must get serious about changing the rules or reforming the rules or whatever it takes to get this bill passed into President Biden's desk.”

King III, also a co-Founder of Give Us the Ballot, said “this is judgment time” for lawmakers “to decide [if they] want to be on the right side of history of protecting, preserving and expanding our democracy."

"Or are you on the other side of history, and letting democracy fail, because these legislators made a different choice?”

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., quipped Tuesday the U.S. should start using the Senate chamber for "wedding receptions there from time to time, because we certainly don't spend time there debating or deliberating."

Voting rights activists gather for a rally outside the White House October 19, 2021 in Washington, DC.

What has happened on Capitol Hill? 

The Freedom to Vote Act is the third piece of voting rights and election reform legislation that has been considered on Capitol Hill in the 117th Congress. 

It is a compromise within the Senate Democratic caucus after previous legislation got lackluster support from moderates within the party and no support from Republicans. 

More:Senate Democrats unveil new voting rights bill in latest effort to bring federal rules to elections

Previous legislation includes the For the People Act, which passed the House but not the Senate this summer. That sweeping legislation banned partisan gerrymandering, required states to establish independent redistricting commissions to draw future maps and changed the Federal Election Commission, according to the Brennan Center.  

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, was among a small group who negotiated the pared down Freedom to Vote Act.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, one of the small group of Democratic senators along with Manchin who negotiated the pared down Freedom to Vote Act, said he is “principally worried about the underlying issue of the devaluing of elections.”

Republicans have opposed all the legislation, saying election reform is something state governments should be in charge of, not the federal government. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that what Democrats have been wanting "to do forever is to have the federal government take over how elections are conducted all over America."

"There's no basis for that, no basis for it whatsoever," he continued. "So this latest iteration is just another example of how they would like to have the federal government take over all of the state elections."

Sen. King said Republicans opposed to the bill either need to offer a serious counterproposal or Democrats may need to consider modifying the filibuster.

“Will they come to the table with some discussions and make a counter proposal? That's one possibility. The other is doing something about the filibuster,” he said.

House Democrats have also passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act,  which would replace part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2013 and aim to restore Justice Department review of changes in election law in states with a history of discrimination.

Republicans also slammed that legislation as part of a partisan strategy for Democrats to federalize election rules to their advantage. 

More:Joe Manchin wants to pass bipartisan John Lewis voting bill, but McConnell still a 'no'

"It's against the law to discriminate in voting on the base of race already, and so I think it's unnecessary," McConnell said earlier this summer.

“We crossed that line with the 15th amendment over 100 years ago, which guarantees the right to vote. And then of course the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the federal act,” Sen. King said. “To me that argument doesn't hold much water. And this bill is not a federalizing of elections, it’s setting some minimum standards.”

It seems unlikely that legislation would clear the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster. 

Sen. King said he has been reluctant on amending the filibuster but acknowledged “this is a special case, because it goes to the fundamental premise of how our democratic system works nd the right to vote.”

Contributing: Mabinty Quarshie

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison and Savannah Behrmann at @savbehrmannDC.