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Tension boils over between activists, Biden over Democrats' voting rights strategy

Francesca Chambers and Alex Roarty, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — Democrats’ increasing focus on defeating Republicans in next year’s midterm elections as the best way to push voting rights forward is angering progressive activists and civil rights leaders, who say the strategy risks backfiring and overlooks the need for immediate action.

The disagreement is the latest example of the growing rift between the Biden administration and its allies over how to respond to a wave of new GOP-backed voter restrictions they say will make it harder for minorities to vote.

“You lose elections, that’s what’s next,” said civil rights attorney Bakari Sellers. “You can’t take the voters who literally have not just voted for you, but died for these rights and not care about them or put their various issues at the forefront. The belief that somehow we’re just going to out-organize voter suppression is disappointing at best, asinine at worst.”

The White House says it is continuing, first and foremost, to press lawmakers to pass federal voting reforms.

But President Joe Biden has refused to tell Democrats they should change the rules of the U.S. Senate to allow voting rights legislation to pass over the objection of Republicans. Supporters of the new voting rights measures want him to make more frequent use of his bully pulpit.

“We need this federal legislation now,” said Lisa Cylar Barrett, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s director of policy. “Waiting a number of years is certainly not an option.”


If the voting rights reforms Democrats want to see become law are enacted after the midterm elections, they wouldn’t be implemented in states until 2023 at the earliest. And that would happen only if Democrats stay in full control of Congress after the election, a historically rare feat for the incumbent president’s party.

Progressive activists are warning that without greater prioritization of voting rights issues, Black voter turnout could be low in the next election.

Of particular frustration for activists were Biden’s comments during a CNN town hall last week, when he suggested Democratic voters could still turn out en masse to the ballot box next year, in spite of new restrictions on voting access.

“Look, the American public, you can’t stop them from voting,” Biden said. “You tried last time. More people voted last time than any time in American history, in the middle of the worst pandemic in American history. More people did. And they showed up. They’re going to show up again. They’re going to do it again.”


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