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Is Biden Doing Enough to Protect Democracy?

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 10/17/2021 Peter Nicholas
© Chip Somodevilla / Getty / The Atlantic

As a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the early 2000s, I once received a call from a couple of Republican campaign operatives who said they had something to show me. We met at their office in Washington, D.C., a few days later. They presented printouts of recent election records and pointed to a few cases of what they suspected were people voting illegally. One after another, their examples of voter fraud turned out to be nothing. They had flagged, for instance, a voter named John Smith who might have cast ballots on the same day in two different precincts­—discounting the possibility that more than one person named John Smith might be living in the region. Their motivation was obvious enough: They were attempting to plant stories that would delegitimize elections that the GOP risked losing. It didn’t work.

With the rising bloc of younger, more diverse voters who skew left, Republican efforts like this in recent years have mushroomed into a full-blown campaign, undercutting the bedrock notion that American voters are the ones who decide elections. Whether GOP-controlled states are drawing new district lines that would disenfranchise Hispanic and Black voters for the next 10 years or “auditing” 2020 election results that have already shown that Donald Trump lost, the goal is the same: By any means necessary, win.

Fiona Hill worked on Trump’s National Security Council and later provided compelling testimony in his first impeachment trial. I asked her if she feared for democracy's future should Trump win again. “We’re already there,” she told me. “I’m worried about it now. Millions of people are showing they don’t want any criticism of Trump. Democracy is becoming a dirty word, something that’s anti-Trump.”

“These are direct assaults on the basic underpinnings of the democratic system,” Wendy Weiser, who directs the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program, told me. This year, 19 states have passed 33 laws creating obstacles to the most fundamental American right, part of a “multipronged effort to sabotage elections,” she added. As the 2022 midterm elections approach, and with the 2024 presidential election not far behind, Democrats believe that President Joe Biden needs to fiercely combat the illiberal forces at work this very second in the country. And those fearing the loss of a two-century tradition of self-government in America are asking, with a hint of desperation, Where is he?

[Read: Why Biden is patient as Democrats panic]

Certainly, Biden has been busy. He’s struggling to pass a historic multitrillion-dollar economic plan that he seems determined to make the centerpiece of his presidency. “I think the Biden administration’s more immediate priority is these infrastructure bills,” Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who serves on the select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, told me. “And I really think that [voting rights] need to be pursued with equal vigor. Efforts to interfere with election officials at the state level are foundational to a democracy. And if the foundation becomes infirm, the whole edifice comes crashing down.” What good is expanded broadband, after all, if it only helps an autocratic government spread democracy-destroying disinformation?

When it comes to GOP attempts to subvert elections, Biden has at times been eloquent, and at other moments conspicuously silent. In July, he gave an impassioned speech in Philadelphia in which he shamed Republicans for not working to uphold “the sacred right to vote.” As my colleague Ronald Brownstein noted at the time, Biden didn’t mention the one step that’s absolutely necessary to protect voting rights: doing away with the Senate filibuster rule that is blocking passage of electoral reforms. In a recent speech, Biden found time to talk about renewable energy, tax credits, early-childhood education, climate change, the debt limit, and the growing number of Americans getting vaccinated. He touched on everything, it seemed, except voting rights. If the nation faces “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history,” as Biden warned in Philadelphia, isn’t that as worthy of a mention as plug-in charging stations?

Ask the White House what it’s doing to defend voting rights and the stock reply is “Plenty.” One aide sent me a spreadsheet illustrating Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s attention to the issue. (The breakdown showed nearly three dozen speeches, meetings, and events for Harris, and six for Biden.) Attorney General Merrick Garland has set up a criminal task force to crack down on intimidation of election employees, a growing problem. (In Georgia, a state that Biden narrowly won, an election worker was emptying trash from a warehouse one day when hecklers surrounded him and told he would be going to jail, Gabriel Sterling, an official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office, told me.) Even Biden’s allies worry that the progress is too slow. Is the president doing enough to spotlight the perilous state of American democracy? I asked Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat. “No, of course not,” he said.

Gina Hinojosa was one of dozens of Democratic Texas legislators who left the state over the summer to deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass legislation restricting voting rights. Hinojosa and her colleagues flew to Washington, where they met twice with Harris to discuss the urgency of the issue. “The last time we passed historic voting-rights legislation, in 1965, we had a president from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who used his skills and the power of the presidency to make voting-rights legislation happen,” she told me. “And we need that same kind of assertiveness from our current president.”

A new bill that Democrats have rallied behind, the Freedom to Vote Act, would beat back Republican attempts to manipulate elections for partisan purposes. It would set national voting standards that create a two-week early-voting period, make Election Day a public holiday, allow no-excuse voting by mail, and prevent the firing of election officials for political reasons. It also aims to prevent partisan gerrymandering, which some red states use to dilute the influence of minority voters. Biden has come out in favor of the bill, which is languishing in the Senate because of the filibuster rule.

An important thing to note about the Freedom to Vote Act is that it carries the support of the two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have balked at the cost of Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure package.

That would give Senate Democrats a good shot at passing the measure—if it needed only a simple majority vote. But the filibuster rule calls for a 60-vote supermajority, and both Manchin and Sinema have so far refused to do away with it. Democrats have worked out an arrangement that gives Manchin time to find 10 Republican senators willing to support the bill and meet the filibuster’s high threshold for passage. “It’s never going to happen,” Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, told me. “He won’t get half of that. He won’t get half of half of that. If we find ourselves in an authoritarian state where there is no more freedom of speech, press, or worship, I don’t think people are going to say, ‘Well, at least we still have the filibuster.’” (Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Democrats are understandably antsy. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is planning for members to vote on the bill as early as Wednesday. A delay would be costly: Republican-controlled legislatures are already coming out with redistricting maps that would lock in their majority status for the next decade. “I wish Senator Manchin the best in his effort to round up some Republican votes, but we cannot have infinite patience,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told me. “The clock is ticking here. We’ve got to get these protections in place right away.” Practically, that looks unrealistic unless Manchin and Simena relent and agree either to nuke the filibuster or carve out a specific exception for voting rights. Biden could pressure the duo to do just that. But with his party holding a one-vote majority in the Senate, he would risk antagonizing two people he can’t afford to lose. When I asked a White House official if Biden supports lifting the filibuster to pass voting-rights protections, I got a tepid reply: “I don’t think we can rule out anything,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

[Read: America is not ready for Trump’s second term]

Activists are growing more frustrated by the day. In July, Sister Quincy Howard and other faith leaders took part in a Zoom meeting on voting rights that included the senior White House adviser Cedric Richmond. She left feeling disheartened by the White House’s message, summarizing it as “‘We need all of you to help us get the word out that there’s a problem with voting rights.’ And I’m like, ‘What? We’re so far beyond that.’ It was jaw-dropping. The word is out!” Then, in August, Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP and now the head of the liberal group People for the American Way, sent a letter along with the League of Women Voters to Richmond warning that voting-rights legislation wouldn’t pass unless the filibuster rule is scrapped. They asked for a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and his deputy Bruce Reed, but got no reply. Feeling stymied, activists began holding demonstrations outside the White House.

Earlier this month, both Howard and Jealous were arrested on Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest. A Secret Service agent took off Howard’s veil while detaining her for crossing a police line. I called the agency and asked why this step was necessary—did they believe there was a concealed weapon beneath the nun’s garments? A spokesperson told me that Howard and four others had refused to “disperse,” and that “during the course of any arrest, the Secret Service employs consistent, standardized arrest protocols for the safety and security of all involved.” Jealous said he was handcuffed for hours and spent the night in a jail cell with “the most aggressive roaches you’ve ever seen.”

When I mentioned the alarm coming from activists, the White House official told me that the Biden administration is “pushing full force” to pass voting protections. “It’s fair for activists to continue to push,” the official said. “Every constituency has their issue. If you ask immigration folks, they’ll tell you their issue is a life-or-death issue too.” (Democracy’s preservation would seem more than a pet issue.) In one crucial respect, Biden has been holding back: He has yet to give a full-throated statement that Senate Democrats need to end the filibuster.

Manchin may never find the 10 Republican votes needed to break a filibuster, but the exercise gives him political cover to tell West Virginians that at least he tried. Having shown that Republican resistance was unwavering, Manchin could then join the dozens of Democratic senators who see the filibuster as a tool for minority obstruction and perhaps persuade Sinema to do the same. “I don’t believe arcane Senate rules should be allowed to turn back the clock on something as fundamental as voting in America,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, told me.

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