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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

Democrats have vowed to continue pressing for the bill, but party leaders acknowledge that passing it through Congress will be difficult unless they change the filibuster rules.

And at least two Senate Democrats, centrists Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have repeatedly stated their opposition to ending the filibuster. Biden himself said ending the procedural move would throw the legislative process into “chaos” during last week’s town hall.

Civil rights leaders say the rule change is essential and have made their views clear during discussions with the White House.

“The strategy is not working until they pass the law,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “It can’t be process over the people.”


Campbell helped to organize a strategy session between Black women who support voting reforms and White House officials earlier this month. Vice President Kamala Harris conducted most of the meeting, but participants said Biden made a surprise drop-in to greet the women, several of whom had been arrested that week at a Capitol protest over Congress’ failure to pass the law.

Civil rights activists say they will continue to push lawmakers, who are currently immersed in infrastructure and budget talks, to take up voting rights legislation again.

“It is critical that we get something done before the end of this year,” said Democratic strategist Karen Finney, who attended the White House meeting. “I’m optimistic that Congress understands and that the American people will be part of pressuring Congress.”


Republicans say their voting rights bills in the states are designed to increase confidence in the security of voters’ ballots.

“The federal government should not be writing the entire nation’s election laws,” Honest Elections executive director Jason Snead said of Democratic efforts. “But it is doubly problematic when you are opening the door to criticism that you are writing these laws to make it easier for you to win elections.”

Progressive activists and Democratic strategists say the party should tap into voting rights as a wedge issue to drive up enthusiasm among the party’s base for the 2022 midterms. But they also warn that those efforts might not be as successful as some party leaders hope.

The rift has amounted to the most serious divide between the White House and allied activists in the first six months of Biden’s administration, even if polls show that the president retains strong support from Democratic voters overall.

David Pepper, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said every dollar spent on helping overcome voter barriers is a dollar not spent running the rest of the campaign.

“Maybe in a state that has a razor-thin margin, you can do it,” Pepper said. “But I just think you’re going to put the onus back on activists and campaigns to fight illegal and blatant voter suppression. It’s a losing strategy long term.”


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