WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris held her highest profile event since grabbing the helm of the White House’s voting rights efforts earlier this month, meeting with a group of rogue Democratic state lawmakers from Texas Wednesday to highlight what they call a national threat to democracy.
Harris’ White House outreach could help galvanize opposition to a wave of Republican-led bills around the country that would likely curtail voting, but she faces a tough reality in Washington. A sprawling Democratic bill, the For the People Act, aimed at expanding voting rights does not have the votes to win approval in the Senate, where it is expected to be debated next week. A second, more narrowly focused bill , the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, also faces long odds.
Harris, who spent only four years in the Senate, is not playing a prominent role in Democrats’ long-shot strategy to revive the For the People Act, according to congressional aides. Instead, she is leading an effort to target hundreds of voting bills around the country, assembling coalitions of activists and business leaders to build pressure on Congress and hoping to spur new voters to register and motivate existing voters to turn out for the 2022 midterms elections, when Democrats could lose their narrow majorities in Congress.
The strategy underscores the limits of Harris’ ability to cut deals in Congress. Unlike President Joe Biden, who served decades as an inside player on Capitol Hill before he became President Barack Obama’s vice president, Harris, who built her reputation as a tough critic of the Trump administration in a more partisan era, has few major legislative achievements. But there is still opportunity for Harris to use her profile and experience on the issue in the Senate and as California’s attorney general to galvanize advocates and put a spotlight on state laws.
“The right to vote is a given,” Harris said during her meeting Wednesday. “What we are seeing are examples of an attempt to interfere with that right, an attempt to marginalize and take from people a right that has already been given.”
Her efforts coincide with several national campaigns, including a rally and march to the White House led by liberal faith leaders Wednesday morning.
Harris discussed voting with local leaders in Greenville, South Carolina, on Monday as part of a trip aimed primarily at promoting vaccines, and she plans a similar gathering in Georgia.
“If they don’t pass that (national) bill, that will be a rallying cry for many,” said Chip Felkel, a Republican consultant in Greenville. “Then it becomes their version of a culture red-meat issue, which is not dumb.”
Nate Persily, a Stanford University law professor who is one of the nation’s leading election law experts, said such efforts are unlikely to have an immediate impact in states that are already shortening polling hours, limiting the right to vote by mail, threatening election officials with criminal penalties or otherwise narrowing options for voters. Legislatures in Georgia, Florida and Arizona — considered battleground states — have each passed new restrictions.
If Congress is unable to pass bills that could combat some of those efforts, the administration could try to persuade Congress to spend $1 billion to $2 billion a year to help beleaguered elections officials.