A small group of civil rights leaders gathered at Vice President Kamala Harris’ ceremonial office last week, discussing how to combat a wave of new Republican-backed laws restricting voting in several states. Among the ideas floated were continuing political organizing against the proposals, recruiting more corporations to the fight and suing to block the laws.
But the conversation kept circling back to the most effective — and possibly the most difficult — strategy on the table: passing Democrats’ sweeping federal overhaul of elections, the For the People Act, commonly known as HR 1.
“We strongly believe that HR1 is viable and essential if we’re going to move to address some of these concerning laws,” said Janet Murguia, executive director of the Latino group UNIDOS, who attended the meeting.
The strategy session highlighted Democrats’ difficult search for a strong defense against laws they say are designed to make it harder to vote. Democrats lack the numbers in many statehouses to block the GOP from passing the tighter rules. Corporate statements and street protests have made Republicans uncomfortable and softened some of the legislation but have not stopped it. And lawsuits amount to a slow-motion game of whack-a-mole that may not be resolved before next year’s midterm elections.
That leaves much riding on a federal rewrite of election and voting laws that could gut many of the GOP-backed state rules. But a Senate hearing on the legislation this week was a display of united GOP opposition, leaving Democrats with no easy path.
“We’re gonna push hard to pass this bill. I do think that there are a number of other things we should be doing at the same time,” Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said Tuesday.
State lawmakers have proposed more than 250 bills that make it harder to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which promotes wider ballot access. Several Republican-controlled states, including Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Florida and Montana, have recently enacted laws that add restrictions, such as limiting access to drop boxes for mail ballots or cutting early voting hours. On Tuesday, Arizona enacted a law that requires regular purges of its mail voting list.
Some states have also expanded voting — largely Democratic-controlled ones but also Oklahoma, which added a day of in-person early voting in legislation signed Tuesday.
The Republican push is spurred by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen — a claim now widely embraced, despite all evidence to contrary, by many in his party. State election officials across the country and judges of both parties found no evidence to support Trump’s assertions, but Republican lawmakers argue the new, tighter rules are needed to restore confidence in the election system.
The laws have triggered more than a dozen lawsuits from Democrats and civil rights groups seeking to block them. The lawsuits generally allege the new laws violate the First, 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution by limiting people’s ability to engage in politics and vote.
Marc Elias, the leading Democratic lawyer in the voting fight, called litigation “not the optimal way to go.”
That’s because lawsuits can take months or years to resolve, and it’s far from clear the courts will be friendly to Democrats’ arguments. Some of the federal appeals courts likely to end up hearing the cases shifted to the right in recent years as Trump named conservative judges.
Meanwhile, since the U.S. Supreme Court removed the requirement that several states get advance approval from the Department of Justice before changing voting laws, civil rights lawyers have been stripped of a once powerful tool to block voting restrictions. Lawyers are watching the Supreme Court again on this front, as it is expected to rule soon on a 2016 Arizona voting lawsuit that could further restrict ways lawyers can challenge voting limits.
“The optimal way to go is for Congress to pass HR1,” Elias said. “We turn to the courts not as our first choice but as our last.”
Still, Democrats are pushing for the Department of Justice to get involved. President Joe Biden, who has said the laws are a sign the nation is “backsliding into the days of Jim Crow,” has said the department is looking at the new Georgia law, but it’s unclear when or where it might intervene.
“The Justice Department needs to step up here, too, and just use whatever powers are at their disposal,” Van Hollen said.
The Democrats’ election overhaul would effectively neuter voter ID laws, implement national automatic voter registration and prohibit partisan gerrymandering.
“If you want to override what is going on in the states you have to enact HR1,” argued Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a supporter of the measure. Litigation and protest, he said, are “piecemeal options — they’re state by state, and this is going on in a number of states.”
But the roadblocks are bipartisan. While Republicans oppose the legislation, moderate holdouts like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona oppose rewriting Senate rules to pass it with simple 51-vote majority. Right now, it need 60 votes to clear a Republican filibuster.
Some Democrats see momentum in another legislative option. Manchin on Wednesday expressed support for a narrower voting bill — one that would restore the requirement that the Department of Justice “pre-clear” voting restrictions. His endorsement could be a sign of growing support for that measure, although it, too, would need Republican votes or a change in Senate rules.
At the meeting on May 6 with Harris, civil rights leaders noted they were surprised by how corporations have spoken out against voting laws in some states. They suggested enlisting them to speak more enthusiastically about the right to vote — or even back HR1. They talked about additional litigation but did not press Harris on the Justice Department’s plans, according to Wade Henderson, interim president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who attended.
The White House said the meeting was an opportunity for Harris to hear directly from leaders of diverse constituencies “about the work they are doing on the ground to mobilize their networks and combat voter suppression.”
The group talked about building political opposition, both on the ground and on the airwaves. Republican groups have already launched ads touting the new Georgia law as a commonsense way to secure elections, while the left-leaning Just Democracy this week began a campaign in Arizona and Georgia featuring a speech by Rep. John Lewis, the late civil rights leader.
The group also worried about the divisive partisanship.
“One point that a number of advocates brought up is that this is not a partisan issue — this is about making sure all people can vote,” said attendee John C. Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC.
Yang said guests talked about using an array of tactics to push back against restrictions. Still, one path stood out.
Harris, Henderson recounted, “did make clear that she and the president will use their bully pulpit to encourage Congress to make some impact.”
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