Biden Calls Voting Rights Bills ‘Imperative’ To Fight GOP Curbs
President Joe Biden delivered an emotional and combative speech in defense of broadening the right to vote, declaring it a “national imperative” for Congress to pass legislation that would counter new Republican laws in several states that curb ballot access. Biden Calls Voting Rights Bills ‘Imperative’ To Fight GOP Curbs
“To me this is simple. This is election subversion,” Biden said Tuesday in Philadelphia, referring to the GOP state laws.
Republicans “want the ability to reject the final count and ignore the will of the people,” he said, noting that some of the laws would enable state legislatures to strip control of elections from local officials. “If their preferred candidate loses, they’re trying not only targeting people of color, they’re targeting voters of all races and backgrounds.”
“It’s unconscionable,” he said.
Biden: “As soon as Congress passes the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, I will sign it and let the whole world see it” pic.twitter.com/1y5MwFD5rz
— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Quicktake) July 13, 2021
Biden’s trip to Philadelphia — the city where he kicked off his presidential campaign — comes as he faces growing pressure from progressive Democrats to fight Republican-led efforts to make it tougher to vote.
The latest flashpoint is in Texas, where most of the Democratic representatives in the state House left Monday for Washington in order to prevent the Republican majority from passing new voting curbs. The legislators will meet with congressional Democratic leaders and Vice President Kamala Harris this week, but they have warned they can’t stop the GOP voting bill indefinitely.
The Democrat-controlled U.S. House has passed two bills to address voting rights, but both have stalled in the Senate.
Civil rights leaders, activists and some Democrats have urged Biden to back a change to the filibuster rule, which enables Republicans to block legislation in the Senate, where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority. Biden has so far resisted calls to eliminate the filibuster.
Republicans say that the voting restrictions are necessary to protect election integrity. The wave of legislation, though, is inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he lost the November election because of rampant fraud, primarily in cities with large Black and Hispanic populations. Black voters turned out overwhelmingly for Biden during the Democratic primaries and the general election.
Biden called the state laws “an assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, and an assault on who we are” and said “bullies and merchants of fears and peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation” of the country.
He didn’t mention the Senate filibuster.
Last week, Biden met with the leaders of civil rights organizations at the White House to discuss voting rights legislation and police reform. They told Biden that there would be nonviolent protests during the remainder of the summer to call attention to voting rights.
Activists have been frustrated at Biden’s reluctance to endorse eliminating the filibuster. So far, he has only been able to address voting rights through executive actions that lack the teeth or sweep to respond to the state laws.
“We also have to be clear-eyed about the obstruction we face. Legislation is one tool, but not the only tool. It’s not the only measure of our obligation to defend democracy,” Biden said.
He cited Attorney General Merrick Garland’s June announcement to double staff working on voting rights issues and to challenge the restrictive state laws in court.
“The focus will be on dismantling racially discriminatory laws, like the recent challenge to Georgia’s vicious anti-voting law. The Department of Justice will do so with a voting rights division, that at my request, is doubling its size in enforcement staff,” Biden said.
Still civil rights groups have indicated that they will continue to pressure Biden and Congress to support a modification of the filibuster to get the bills passed. Al Sharpton, in comments to reporters in Philadelphia after Biden’s speech, said he reiterated to Biden that he wanted him to change his position on the procedure. He said the president “didn’t commit” on supporting a modification.
“He said we’re still working through our position on that, so he’s noncommittal,” Sharpton said. “You’ve got to do a workaround or change the filibuster, otherwise all of what he said and we’ve been saying is at risk here. And that’s why I wanted to be here. I thought it was monumental that he did this.”
Sharpton, leader of the National Action Network, was among civil rights leaders that met with Biden at the White House last week. Wade Henderson, interim president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also applauded Biden’s speech, though he called on the White House and Congress to do more to pass the bills. Henderson also participated in the meeting last week.
Biden and Harris “must do everything possible” to ensure the voting rights legislation passes, Henderson said in a statement. “Even if that means supporting the change of archaic Senate rules to protect our freedom to vote.”
Black Executives Press Companies To Battle GOP State Voting Laws
Delta CEO also takes tougher position on new Georgia law, drawing retort from state’s governor.
Dozens of prominent Black executives called on corporations to fight Republican-led legislation they say would limit voting access for Black voters in numerous states, and Delta Air Lines Inc.’s CEO publicly clashed with Georgia’s governor over a similar law passed there last week.
The efforts by Black business leaders, as well as new statements from Delta, Coca-Cola Co. and other companies on Wednesday, come after civil-rights advocates had for days said Georgia-based corporations hadn’t done enough to push back against that new state voting law.
Opponents say the new voting rules will make it harder for voters in underrepresented communities to cast ballots, while backers say the rules are needed to preserve election integrity.
Though Delta, Coca-Cola and other corporations with headquarters in Atlanta had said they had worked behind the scenes to lobby Georgia lawmakers to make changes to the legislation, they had largely refrained from publicly criticizing it—prompting boycott calls from some voting-rights activists.
In a Wednesday appearance on CNBC, Coca-Cola Chief Executive James Quincey said the company had always opposed the legislation, which he called unacceptable. Private efforts to lobby hadn’t worked, he said, “and so we’re being more forceful in our public position.”
The 72 Black executives, who include Merck & Co. CEO Kenneth Frazier, former American Express Co. CEO Kenneth Chenault, and Mellody Hobson, Starbucks Corp. chairwoman and co-CEO of Ariel Investments LLC, signed an open letter published in a full-page New York Times ad on Wednesday. In it, they pushed companies and business leaders across the country to sway legislative debate.
“This is a nonpartisan issue, this is a moral issue,” Mr. Chenault said in an interview. Mr. Frazier said that as dozens of other states consider similar legislation, companies must act. “This is not a Georgia issue,” he said.
Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox Holdings Corp. and another signatory to the letter, said she had reached out to board colleagues at Exxon Mobil Corp. and Uber Technologies Inc., where she is a board member, to ask what action they plan to take. She said she expected other board directors at other companies to do the same. “People are going to have to respond,” she said. “Companies are going to have to say something.”
Republican legislators in Georgia have said new rules are needed, in part to assure the public that voting is fair and to ease concerns there might have been fraud this past election season. No court or legislative body has found evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Despite pressure from then-President Donald Trump to overturn the results, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state and other Republican officials also affirmed the integrity of the state’s 2020 presidential election after conducting two statewide recounts and a partial audit of mail-in votes in one county.
On Wednesday, Delta CEO Ed Bastian issued a memo to employees more sharply criticizing the new Georgia law than the company had in previous statements. After he had time to fully understand the legislation’s provisions and speak to Black community leaders and employees, he said, it became evident the law would make it harder for many voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their right to vote. “That is wrong,” he wrote.
“I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values,” he added in the memo.
Mr. Bastian also criticized lawmakers who had pushed for Georgia’s law. “The entire rationale for the bill was based on a lie,” he said, calling allegations of widespread voter fraud “simply not true.”
Mr. Kemp, who signed the bill into law last week, took issue with Mr. Bastian’s memo, saying that his office had consulted regularly with Delta and that the company had made no objections. “At no point did Delta share any opposition to expanding early voting, strengthening voter ID measures, increasing the use of secure drop boxes statewide, and making it easier for local election officials to administer elections—which is exactly what this bill does,” he said.
Mr. Kemp added: “The last time I flew Delta, I had to present my photo ID. Today’s statement by Delta CEO Ed Bastian stands in stark contrast to our conversations with the company, ignores the content of the new law, and unfortunately continues to spread the same false attacks being repeated by partisan activists.”
It isn’t the first time Delta has clashed with Georgia officials over a political stance it has taken. In 2018, after Delta ended a promotional discount for members of the National Rifle Association, Georgia Republicans removed a proposed sales-tax exemption on jet fuel that would have benefited Delta from tax legislation.
The Georgia law, which was passed by both chambers along party lines, is far less extensive than numerous bills that were initially proposed by the state’s GOP legislators. The law requires absentee voters to request ballots by providing their driver’s license number, the last four digits of their Social Security number or a copy of some other accepted form of identification.
They also have to provide this information when they mail in their ballots. Currently, people sign an absentee-ballot application and sign an inside envelope containing the ballot when they mail it in.
The law also places new limits on how parties and voting groups mail out absentee-ballot request forms, and limits the number of ballot drop boxes to one per county except for large counties, which can set up one box for every 100,000 registered voters.
Microsoft Corp. , which recently announced expansion plans in Georgia’s capital, also released a statement Wednesday objecting to Georgia’s law and calling for corporate peers to take action in other states considering similar legislation.
The company said restrictions on voting drop boxes in Fulton County, where most Georgia-based Microsoft employees live, would likely cause an 80% reduction in drop boxes. Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, had previously tweeted opposition to what he described as efforts in Georgia to “restrict fair and secure elections.”
Others also added their voices, including Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs at Alphabet Inc.’s Google, who tweeted that Google was “concerned about efforts to restrict voting at a local level.” The company has said it is investing more than $25 million this year to expand its offices in Atlanta.
The open letter from Black executives, titled “Memo to Corporate America: The Fierce Urgency is Now,” didn’t call out specific companies. Instead, it cited the blood shed during the civil-rights movement, saying that Americans had “marched, suffered imprisonment and were even killed to ensure each of us has the right to vote.”
In interviews, some of the signatories to the open letter compared the lack of stronger corporate opposition to Georgia’s voting legislation to last summer, when George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis police custody prompted an outpouring of company statements of support and commitments to the Black community.
“We have to rely on allies. It shouldn’t be one Black person in the room,” said Debra Lee, former chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, who signed the letter. “Everyone has to speak up.”
The law’s passage by the GOP-majority legislature followed key election losses by Republicans in the recent election season. In November, then-President Trump lost Georgia to Democrat Joe Biden by about 12,000 votes out of five million cast, making him the first Republican presidential candidate to lose the state since 1992.
In January, Georgia’s two GOP senators lost seats to Democrats, victories that gave Democrats 50 seats in the U.S. Senate and effective control, as Vice President Kamala Harris has the tie-breaking vote. The losses infuriated many Republican voters and politicians, and Mr. Trump repeatedly said, without providing evidence, that voting had been fraudulent.
New Voting Laws Face Court Challenges Across The U.S.
Election-related litigation has surged in recent years as political parties seek an advantage.
Voting laws passed in the wake of the 2020 election are facing a wave of court challenges, setting up a series of legal battles this year that could help reshape the rules around voting for years to come.
At least two dozen states have passed laws this year that either expand voting rules or tighten them, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, a public-policy think tank. At least 30 lawsuits are aimed at laws in 11 states that opponents say restrict voting access with measures such as shortening the time period for mail-in and early voting, increasing verification requirements and placing limits on providing food or water to people waiting in line to vote.
Mostly liberal groups have challenged these new bills on grounds that they violate aspects of the Voting Rights Act, the First and 14th Amendments and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In Georgia, which has become the epicenter of the fight, groups have filed nine lawsuits over legislation that was passed in late March, according to the Brennan Center. A lawsuit filed by the Justice Department last month against Georgia added firepower to the legal battle over the new voting laws.
The states and conservative legal groups supporting the laws say they are necessary to bolster public confidence in elections and dismiss the litigation as meritless. Liberal groups say these laws are designed to make it harder for people of color to vote and potentially give an edge to Republicans in future elections.
The lawsuits are part of a surge in voting-related litigation after a series of close national elections showed both political parties that something as seemingly mundane as election rules can be key to their hold on power, legal academics said. The high stakes fuel both legislative action and fundraising for more lawsuits, said New York University law professor Richard Pildes.
“The intensity around these issues has really just gone to a whole ’nother level,” Prof. Pildes said.
Richard Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at the University of California, Irvine, said the number of election lawsuits has nearly tripled over the past two decades. The hundreds of lawsuits filed over pandemic voting rules last year will likely be a record, said Prof. Hasen, who is still tallying the numbers.
In Texas, a suit filed last month alleges that a new voting law restricts political expression protected by the First Amendment because it forbids citizens from establishing residency there to influence the outcome of an election. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston, who co-sponsored the bill, said it is to prevent voters from registering at post-office boxes at which they don’t actually live so elections aren’t “unfairly impacted.”
Another suit, filed in Florida by that state’s League of Women Voters, alleges that a new law places an undue burden on citizens’ right to vote by limiting access to ballot drop boxes and potentially prohibiting groups from providing food and water to people waiting in line. Cecile Scoon, the group’s president, said she is concerned the new legislation will make it more difficult for people of color and the disabled to vote.
When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill in May, he said it would “increase transparency and strengthen the security of our elections.”
Conservative groups say their members are energized following the fight over last November’s election and that they see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make elections more secure. Liberals view the courts—which upheld the 2020 election results in dozens of lawsuits around the country—as their last line of defense against changes to current voting laws.
While courts almost universally have rejected hasty legal challenges to election results, some of the lawsuits this year face difficult chances in front of a conservative federal judiciary, Prof. Hasen said.
The Supreme Court dealt some of the lawsuits a blow with a decision that established new criteria for applying Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which precludes states from imposing any rule “which results in a denial or abridgment” of the right to vote on the basis of race. This section of the Voting Rights Act is at the heart of many of the lawsuits filed this year.
“It is inevitable that it will make it harder to bring and to win these cases and require more resources from voting-rights advocates,” said Sophia Lakin, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project.
Conservatives say the lawsuits have little substance, pointing to the speed with which opponents are filing them. “What we’re seeing is more of a press release dressed up as a lawsuit,” said Jason Snead, executive director of the Honest Elections Project, a nonprofit conservative group that intervenes in election lawsuits.
One reason for the speed with which these bills have been passed and then the legal challenges filed is an awareness that they will likely shape House and Senate races in 2022, election-law observers said.
The cases remain in their early stages and courts have yet to make significant rulings that would help indicate the either side’s chances of success. A judge rejected a motion for a preliminary injunction in one of the Georgia cases that doesn’t involve the Justice Department, providing one of the first indications of how receptive courts will be to these cases.
House Passes Voting Rights Legislation; Fate In Senate Uncertain
House Democrats, moving to counter a wave of Republican state-level initiatives to restrict ballot access, passed legislation to restore portions of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, adding pressure on the U.S. Senate to break a logjam on the issue.
The 219-212 party-line House vote Tuesday heightens the stakes as the Senate prepares to take up voting rights legislation after it returns in September from its summer break.
Civil rights leaders and progressive groups are demanding the Senate eliminate or carve out a new exception to its traditional filibuster rule if the Republican minority uses the provision to block protection of what they consider fundamental constitutional rights.
Many Democrats and and party activists see new federal voting rights legislation as a last chance to prevent Republicans from enacting a wave of ballot restrictions and gerrymandering that will systemically disadvantage Democrats for years to come.
“I think all of us know our country has a history of voter suppression and voter denial” Democratic Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina said during the debate.
No Republicans in the House voted for the bill, underscoring the challenge in the Senate, where support from 10 of the chamber’s 50 Republicans would be needed to overcome a fillibuster. GOP lawmakers accused Democrats of trying to orchestrate a federal takeover of elections for their own political benefit.
“Not a scintilla of evidence is presented that voters are being suppressed,” Louisiana Republican Representative Mike Johnson said. “It’s never been easier in America to vote.”
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named after the late Georgia congressman and civil rights figure, would revive parts of the 1965 law that were stripped by recent Supreme Court decisions.
The legislation would restore and strengthen a requirement that jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination first get “preclearance” from the Justice Department or a federal court for voting rules changes to assure they don’t harm minority voters. It would also establish a process for review of claims of vote dilution and denial.
The House vote on the measure was part of a deal reached earlier in the day between Democratic leaders and moderates to adopt the Senate’s $3.5 trillion and set a late September deadline for a vote on a bipartisan infrastructure plan.
The States Making Voting Easier
While Georgia moves to restrict voting rights, Virginia and California offer models for legislation that expands ballot accessibility.
Across the U.S., states from Georgia to Kansas are enacting laws that would place restrictions on mail-in voting, add ID requirements and reduce the number of ballots people are allowed to submit on behalf of others, citing election security as their primary concern.
But even more states are pushing through legislation that would make voting more accessible to all, and they dispute claims that fewer barriers to the polls will lead to fraud. These efforts are feeding into a broader push for Congress to pass the recently updated John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced in the House on Aug. 17, which would restore protections against voter discrimination under the increasingly hollowed Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“We are in a circumstance where it’s necessary for Congress to act, to make sure that American voters across the country have access to the promise of the right to vote, and are protected from discriminatory voting procedures,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that tracks voting rights legislation.
In the meantime, Virginia became the first state to pass its own version of the Voting Rights Act, called the Voting Rights Act of Virginia this year. State law now prohibits discrimination in election administration, requires local election officials to get feedback or pre-approval for voting changes and allows individuals to sue in cases of voter suppression.
“I reject the premise that there’s a tension between increased access and weakened security,” said Virginia House Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democrat who authored another voting rights bill the state passed this year, which makes a host of changes to absentee voting procedures that improve ballot availability and accessibility.
The passage of that bill followed another piece of legislation — introduced by Virginia House Delegate Mark Sickles in a special session ahead of the 2020 election — that allowed mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if received by noon on the Friday after the election.
Vote By Mail
On the West Coast, California lawmaker Tom Umberg helped pass a bill that authorizes voters to use a vote-by-mail tracking system and requires county election officials to mail a ballot to every active registered voter, a practice that has been outlawed in other states.
“With the [vote-by-mail] ballots, there are barcodes that correspond to your registration, that correspond to the ballot that was sent out, that correspond to the ballot that comes back in, and so it is secure,” said Umberg.
“And I think both the concerns and estimates as to those who wish to tilt the process are way overblown. Here in California, we have a hard time getting people who are undocumented to go to the hospital when they’re sick or their children are sick in order to prevent the disease or injury from being exacerbated, let alone folks voting.”
Including Virginia’s and California’s new rules, 25 states have enacted 54 laws this year that make it easier to vote, compared with at least 18 states passing 30 laws that restrict voter access, according to the Brennan Center’s latest voting rights roundup. There are hundreds more bills pending that expand voter accessibility and rights across 49 states this year.
Local and state activists have also been using lawsuits, donations, public pressure and other methods to push back against restrictive laws, created under the rationale of rampant voter fraud, despite U.S. officials announcing that the 2020 elections were the most secure in U.S. history.
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that voting by mail can be “an effective way of ensuring that many citizens have a practical ability to participate in the election process, given the various logistical difficulties that may preclude individuals from appearing at a polling place on Election Day.”
“No Systematic Failure”
A separate report from the National Task Force on Election Crises, a nonpartisan group, analyzed the capacity of state and federal governments to combat voter intimidation and increase access. The task force offers recommendations such as expanding pre-canvassing of absentee ballots, which allows election administrators to begin processing ballots in advance of Election Day in order to mitigate post-election delays in determining results. Another recommendation is to increase crisis-tested voting options, such as early voting and mail-in voting.
“There was no systematic failure of election infrastructure or digital interference from enemies foreign or domestic. Despite voter suppression attempts, turnout was historic — and historically diverse,” the report reads.
“At least 85% of voters had the option to bypass polling locations and vote from the safety of their homes in this election. Mail-in voting helped to alleviate pressure for in-person voting and enabled those who were high-risk for Covid-19 to vote without risking their health.”
Some conservative lawmakers advocate that restricting voter access is making voting easier. In Florida, a bill from state Senator Dennis Baxley requires applicants to present ID when requesting a mail-in ballot, limits the availability of drop boxes at early voting sites and prohibits individuals from handling more than two additional mail-in ballots beyond their own, not including immediate family members.
Baxley, a Republican who served in the Florida legislature during the controversial 2000 Bush-Gore election, said he “kept mail voting alive” despite personal concerns with the capability of the U.S. Postal Service, and even as many Republican lawmakers have voted this year to eliminate mail-in voting. He said he reduced the number of drop boxes because they are unobserved, could “get rained in, or full of water,” or people could secretly remove or add ballots to them.
But the Brennan Center’s Sweren-Becker says that Baxley’s law still restricts voter access.
“The other common method that voters [use to] deliver absentee ballots is through mailboxes, which sit on street corners and are not monitored or staffed,” said Sweren-Becker. “The suggestion that there was some problem with the way that ballot boxes operated in Florida is disingenuous, because I have seen no evidence of any problems being surfaced in last year’s usage of that method of casting ballots.”
“Notice And Cure”
This disconnect over election security, often along party lines, can lead to misinformation among voters — something that Vermont state Senator Cheryl Hooker says can be combated with voter education. Hooker’s bill arose from learning one of her constituents’ ballots was denied for a reason she did not understand.
The bill, which was signed into law on June 7, establishes a universal vote-by-mail system for all state general elections and implements a “notice and cure process” in which clerks are required to mail a postcard to the voter by the next business day following rejection of a ballot, informing them of any defect and how to correct the error.
“I introduced the bill to allow people who had voted by mail, who had made a mistake — like not signing the outside envelopes [or] not sending back the unvoted ballots — to cure the defect that caused their ballot to be denied,” Hooker said.
The National Task Force on Election Crises report states that successes, such as those found in California, Vermont and Virginia, arose from intentional legislative and political pressure from voting rights advocates. It recommends that Congress establish a commission that would seek nonpartisan reform by surveying best practices and proposing amendments aimed to strengthen election procedures and infrastructure.
There’s precedent for this: Following the Bush-Gore 2000 election controversy, the Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that focuses on public policy and political history, assembled a commission to examine voting systems and recommend reforms.
Many of the suggested improvements ultimately helped inform, and were subsequently adopted in, the Help America Vote Act, which addressed improvements to voting processes and access, and was signed by former President George W. Bush in 2002.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who was honorary co-chair for the Miller Center commission, and former Secretary of State James Baker III then founded the nonpartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, which put out a report in 2005 that the Brennan Center slammed for lacking detail and empirical data.
The report recommended a controversial ID requirement that critics said would disenfranchise millions around the country, including the four million with disabilities who did not possess a driver’s license or other form of state photo ID at the time. It also argued that voting by mail was “likely to increase the risks of fraud” — becoming a crucial weapon for today’s restrictive voting laws.
Despite Carter’s denunciation of politicians cherry picking that sentence as rationale for their restrictive laws, it became part of Chief Justice John Roberts’ key rationale in the July 2021 Supreme Court ruling upholding provisions of an Arizona law that restricts how ballots are cast. Carter maintains that the line’s main purpose was to call attention to the need to further study vote-by-mail practices.
“American democracy means every eligible person has the right to vote in an election that is fair, open and secure. It should be flexible enough to meet the electorate’s changing needs,” Carter said in a statement in response to Georgia’s new restrictions.
“As Georgians, we must protect these values. We must not lose the progress we have made. We must not promote confidence among one segment of the electorate by restricting the participation of others.”
Biden Tests Black Voters’ Loyalty As Election, Police Laws Stall
President Joe Biden faces growing discontent among Black voters over his administration’s lack of progress on voting rights and police reform, central issues for a key bloc that Democrats will need to turn out for the 2022 midterm elections.
Biden’s focus on a signature infrastructure bill, following passage of a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package in March, has fueled criticism from African-Americans that he hasn’t expended the same amount of political capital on the issues that they’re most concerned about.
“He made it seem like civil rights was going to be one of the main things in his first 100 days,” said Chinere Wright, 40, who voted for Biden and styles hair at Philly Cuts, a shop in West Philadelphia. “That was his main thing to get us to rally around him. He really went hard for our vote to get in. Our votes were what helped him to get over. Don’t use us for our vote.”
Biden’s approval rating among Black voters has dropped from 76.8% on Jan. 23, three days after he took office, to 63% in an Economist/YouGov poll taken just before the Afghanistan withdrawal dampened his approval ratings among all voters, at least temporarily.
Biden has only been in office for seven months, and he has time to recover as he turns his attention to the $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes widely popular initiatives such as universal pre-K, tuition-free community college and money to make housing more affordable.
The House voted this week to move forward on the measure, which has strong support among the party’s progressive wing. It also passed a voting rights bill named for the late civil rights icon John Lewis, even though the legislation will likely die in the Senate.
Still, the president can ill afford even a small slip in support from a demographic that is key to his party’s success. Any decline in participation by Black voters — 87% of whom supported him in 2020 — could sink turnout enough to hurt Democrats next year when Biden isn’t on the ballot, increasing the risk his party loses control of Congress.
Black Americans “are beyond disappointed and cannot be relied upon to come out in November of 2022, after having elected Democrats to unify control of the federal government the last time around,” said New York Democratic Representative Mondaire Jones, who is African-American and a progressive Democrat.
Democrats hold a 3-seat margin of control in the House, and the Senate is split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote giving the party the slimmest of majorities. The party in power in the White House and Congress typically faces an uphill climb during midterms to hold on to their majority.
Biden won the White House with a full-throated appeal for racial equity in U.S. government policies as a way to make the economy more fair to all, through spending on programs — like child and elder care — that allow people to work and by putting more of the tax burden on the wealthy and corporations.
At the same time, Republicans launched a variety of efforts in statehouses to make it harder for people to vote. Bipartisan negotiations on a policing reform bill also bogged down and are currently at a standstill.
Biden’s recent response to the expiration of a Covid-19 eviction moratorium may make matters worse. The administration waited until the last minute to publicly ask lawmakers to extend the moratorium that has saved tens of thousands of Black renters from losing their homes during the pandemic. Congress didn’t act.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new moratorium to keep tenants who are in arrears from losing their homes until Oct. 3. The White House is hoping the move provides enough time to stand up a long-delayed $47 billion rental assistance program.
The lapse added to rising frustration among critics, who say Biden’s focus on Covid-relief spending and infrastructure has left him little time or political capital to tackle issues central to Black Americans — especially pushing back on Republican efforts that would make it more difficult for people of color to vote.
At the Philadelphia barber shop, a converted row house where a hand-drawn “Vote or Die” sign decorates the front wall, barbers slowly reclined customers’ chairs, preparing to cut hair, as they mused about Biden’s record.
James Brown III, a barber, said he voted for Biden but is undecided about future support and about the midterm election. He wants to see Biden fulfill his campaign pledges to Black Americans and says federal funds aren’t sufficiently reaching Black businesses. Sitting in the shop with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali hanging on the wall, Brown said he also wants to see voting rights and police reform legislation pass.
“We haven’t been taken care of,” Brown, 47, said.
Brown paused when asked which issue he prioritizes the most. Before he could answer, shop owner Darryl Thomas interjected, saying issues such as voting rights, police misconduct and equitable distribution of federal funds hold equal weight for Black voters.
“If you negate one, the other will bite you,” said Thomas, 49, who also voted for Biden. Brown nodded in agreement.
Yet Thomas says he still supports Biden.
“Yes, I would vote for him again. It’s not the Biden show,” he said, adding that the entire party has to be more assertive on civil rights and equality issues. Thomas also praised Biden for his campaign to get people vaccinated against Covid-19.
The president faces increasing pressure to act on issues of concern to Black voters, including ads featuring Black people speaking about the importance of the voting rights legislation.
“If they don’t see our Senate, our Congress, our White House, our government standing up and having their back when they’re under attack, it could be very demoralizing,” Tiffany Muller, president and executive director of End Citizens United, a political action committee that spent $1.1 million to air the ads, said of Black voters.
Remidy Shareef, a Black man from New Haven, Connecticut, who is a member of New Haven Rising, a racial justice, economic and social activist group, said he voted for Biden in November but hasn’t decided whether he will again.
“We need more, we demand more and we need to see it from you,” said Shareef, who participated in get-out-the-vote efforts in Pennsylvania and Georgia, another swing state, last year. “It’s a lot of things for us to see. It’s a lot of work to be done.”
In an Aug. 6 White House press briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Biden’s message to Black voters who are frustrated by little movement on police reform and voting rights.
“His message first is he’s with you and that he is also tired of waiting,” Psaki said. “He believes voting rights is a fundamental right, it will be a fight of his presidency and he would love to sign legislation on voting rights and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act into law.”
Biden has used executive actions to address voting rights and delivered a speech in Philadelphia last month calling for Congress to pass legislation. In May, he met at the White House with the family of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man killed last year by a Minneapolis police officer. But Congress hasn’t heeded his call on voting rights or police reform legislation.
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, said that if Democrats are unable to pass bills on such issues as voting rights, they’ll have a tougher time convincing Black voters to mobilize in 2022.
“So the question is, when they don’t deliver on it and if they’re unable to deliver on it, will they pay a political price for it?” Belcher said.
Black Lawmakers, Now Winning In White Communities, Call For End To Packing Black Voters In House Districts
More say majority-Black districts, once a key to Black political power, hurt Democratic efforts to gain seats.
The growing success of Black candidates in racially diverse communities across the U.S. is spurring a push to distribute Black voters more evenly across newly drawn House districts.
States are starting to rework the boundaries of their congressional districts based on new population totals from the 2020 census released in August. Black leaders are approaching this process with a different mind-set than a decade ago, with more arguing that Black political representation no longer rests on a need to pack Black voters into highly concentrated districts.
The shift could help Democrats push for maps that make the party more competitive in some states by distributing Black voters—the party’s most supportive voting bloc—across more House districts.
Previously, many Black officeholders had argued for concentrating Black voters in House districts where they would form a majority, often leading to the election of Black lawmakers. Republicans in many cases were glad to go along, because concentrating Black voters into a district created adjacent districts that were overwhelmingly white and where Republicans had stronger chances of winning.
Many Democratic leaders, by contrast, have argued that distributing Black voters across multiple districts would make the party competitive in more places. Redistricting battles in the past have sometimes divided Democrats by race, with Black Democrats, and at times Hispanic Democrats, aligned against white Democrats.
Those divisions became a feature of legislative debates or lawsuits in Missouri, Maryland, Illinois and other states after the 2010 census, as well as in earlier decades.
Now, more Black leaders are saying the strategy should change.
“There’s a thaw in the thinking,” said Joe Grant, deputy director of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, whose members will help draw the new district lines in many states. The change, he said, is due to evidence “that you can have the election of a Black candidate without having super-Black districts.”
Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina State representative and veteran of redistricting battles, said Black lawmakers should end the “unhealthy, unholy alliance” with Republicans in drawing House districts. If a candidate can’t win in a district where less than half the eligible voters are Black, he said, “then you don’t really need to be in Congress.”
‘You can have the election of a Black candidate without having super-Black districts’
— Joe Grant, deputy director of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators
Results of the 2020 census show that the change in thinking arises in part from necessity. The nation’s metropolitan areas have become more diverse, forcing their representatives to speak to a more racially mixed constituency. The new data show that seven Black lawmakers now in Congress represent districts that were majority Black in 2010 but no longer are so, including several in and around New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
To some Black leaders and their allies, the experience of Rep. Bobby Scott (D., Va.) shows the value of pushing to unpack majority-Black districts.
Once Virginia’s only Black House member, Mr. Scott backed a successful lawsuit that cut the Black share of voting-age residents in his district to about 45% from 56%. After many of those voters were moved to an adjacent district, in 2016, voters there elected a second Black congressman, Democratic Rep. A. Donald McEachin.
“You don’t want to lock in over-packed districts,” Mr. Scott said. “You want to make sure the districts are sufficient for the minority community to elect a candidate of its choice, but not much more.”
Because Republicans control the map-drawing process in many of the states with the largest shares of Black residents, including Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina, a stronger alliance between Black and white Democratic leaders could be most meaningful in the court battles that Democrats are all but certain to pursue to challenge new U.S. House and state legislative maps.
Republicans say several developments will make these lawsuits harder to win. While the courts have often struck down racial gerrymanders—maps viewed as undermining minority voting rights as protected by the Voting Rights Act of 1965—the Supreme Court in 2019 said it had no authority to stop partisan gerrymanders, or maps designed to maximize one party’s political advantages.
Some Republicans say this means that maps drawn only from political data have an improved chance of surviving legal challenges.
“If you turn off the race data and only look at the political data, then you haven’t drawn on the basis of race,” said Jason Torchinsky, a lawyer who has worked with the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the GOP’s coordinating group for redistricting strategy. As a tactic for avoiding claims that maps harm minority voting power, he said, “there are parts of the country where that might work well.”
In North Carolina, a Republican-led legislative committee voted last month to exclude racial data when drawing new district lines.
Republicans also point to data suggesting that most minority groups don’t act as a voting bloc. Hispanic voters gave more support to former President Donald Trump in 2020 than in 2016, and several of the GOP’s Asian American and Black candidates won House races last year. “This notion that demographics are going to determine how people are going to vote has all kinds of assumptions that are not going to hold up over the long term,” Mr. Torchinsky said.
Changes in voting preferences are behind the shift in thinking among some Black leaders.
The nation’s suburbs have moved toward the Democratic Party, due in part to rising racial diversity and to weakened support for the GOP among white voters in those communities, a trend that accelerated under Mr. Trump.
At the same time, more Black candidates have been running and winning in House districts where Black voters are scarce.
In 2018, 14 Black candidates, all Democrats, won seats in majority-white or plurality-white districts, including eight who won for the first time. They included Democrats Antonio Delgado, from New York’s Hudson Valley, Lauren Underwood of suburban Chicago and Joe Neguse of suburban Denver who won seats in districts in which white residents make up 73% or more of the population and Black voters less than 5%, according to the new census data.
Newly elected Black lawmakers in 2020 included Democratic Rep. Marilyn Strickland, whose Washington state district is 61% white.
Black Republicans have won recently in largely white districts, as well, including in a Salt Lake City district that elected former NFL player Burgess Owens last year.
One point of focus as new House lines are drawn will likely be the district of Rep. Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.), the third-ranking Democrat in the House and the only Democrat among the state’s seven House members. About 52% of residents in Mr. Clyburn’s district are Black, the new census data show, while white residents account for more than 63% in all four adjacent districts.
Mr. Sellers, the former South Carolina State representative, said he believes that concentrating Black voters in Mr. Clyburn’s district has deprived voters of the chance to elect a second Democrat to Congress. “No doubt about it. It needs to be unpacked,” he said.
In an interview, Mr. Clyburn said that he couldn’t offer an opinion on the best racial mix of voters in his or other South Carolina districts, but that he was sure that a different alignment would give Black voters and Democrats a stronger voice.