Harris steps into high-wire act on voting rights as pressure builds on election bills

·10 min read

WASHINGTON – Pastor Telley Lynette Gadson came to her meeting Monday prepared to tell Kamala Harris about long lines to vote at her South Carolina church and other polling sites last year in South Carolina.

She shared with the vice president her concerns over access to the polls and her own family’s history of fighting for voting rights in the state.

“She listened. That’s what she came to do,” said Gadson, senior pastor at Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Taylors, South Carolina. “It was just really organic and genuine and authentic to have some conversation on something so sacred and so important."

Gadson and two other local activists met with Harris in a YMCA conference room for about 45 minutes. It was the first of a series of meetings Harris held this week to hear concerns from grassroots activists and legislators about voter access.

The vice president has been tapped to lead the Biden administration’s efforts to protect voting rights, a role aides say involves educating Americans and building coalitions to push back against a wave of Republican-led efforts to adopt more restrictive state election laws.

The high-profile assignment, which President Joe Biden described as one that's "going to take a hell of a lot of work," also comes with the task of helping Democrats push through a sweeping elections reform bill in the Senate, where it could see a vote as early as next week.

The chances of the For The People Act's passage, along with a narrower bill known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, are dimming. The clock is ticking, experts say, and the outcome of the legislative wrangling could be consequential in next year's midterm elections, when Democrats could lose their razor thin majorities in Congress.

Harris sits squarely in the middle of it all.

Describing it as a threat to democracy, Harris and civil rights groups are hoping the GOP-led effort to pass restrictive legislation galvanizes new voters to register and motivates others to turn out next year. But it's a high-risk gamble for a vice president who's already taken up the mantle of the White House's diplomatic talks to stem the flow of migration from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border — another politically fraught issue with no simple solution.

In addition to her Monday meeting, Harris on Wednesday met with nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers from Texas, praising them as "American patriots" for staging a walkout to break quorum and temporarily block a Republican-backed law that would among other things ban 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting. She is also scheduled to meet Friday with several voting rights advocates in Georgia, another state at the epicenter of the battle over voting rights.

Harris has spoken to local officials, civil rights advocates and lawmakers on Capitol Hill and across the country in her quest to counteract restrictive voting bills, and aides say she'll continue to highlight the issue on future trips.

Texas state Rep. Rafael Anchía, who attended the Roosevelt Room meeting with Harris Wednesday, said the vice president told them the walkout earlier this month was an "important spark" they needed to build momentum in Texas and other states to fight against efforts to make it harder to vote. She asked them to build coalitions with legislators in other states facing similar voter rights restrictions.

"She wanted to express that this action was part of a continuum, part of the constant struggle to protect voting rights," he said. "She reiterated that this is the beginning and not the end."

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at a COVID-19 vaccination mobilization event at the Phillis Wheatley Community Center June 14, 2021 in Greenville, South Carolina. The trip is part of a nationwide tour to encourage people to get vaccinated. While in South Carolina, Harris also met with voting rights activists. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at a COVID-19 vaccination mobilization event at the Phillis Wheatley Community Center June 14, 2021 in Greenville, South Carolina. The trip is part of a nationwide tour to encourage people to get vaccinated. While in South Carolina, Harris also met with voting rights activists. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The national fight over voting rights is expected to be a major issue as more states led by Republicans adopt restrictive election laws, many of which were spurred by former President Donald Trump's false claim that he lost the election because of rampant voter fraud. So far this year 14 states have enacted 22 laws that restrict access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law.

“I see this really being a ... knockdown drag out fight for the next couple of years through the 2022 midterms,’’ said Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, chair of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Southern California and a convener of the Kamala Harris Project, a group of scholars tracking her four years as vice president.

Adding the new role to Harris' portfolio shows how much confidence Biden has in her, said Hancock Alfaro.

“It's an expression of faith that he is willing to have these two really big issues, on which he will be judged, frankly, to entrust them to her,’’ she said.

Biden has condemned the election laws adopted by GOP-led legislatures, calling them reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced plans to step up efforts to challenge election measures and policies adopted by some states that discriminate against communities of color.

The vice president recognizes the challenge, aides say, but plans to use her bully pulpit to put a spotlight on restrictive voting measures cropping up across the country and drive Congress to act on federal legislation.

The "inside-out strategy," as a senior administration official described it, is part of a recognition that major civil rights legislation was borne out of mounting pressure from activists.

"I think she sees herself as potentially being a bridge," said the official, who spoke to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity to discuss Harris’ role. "Part of that is listening to the voices of advocates so the people from the inside hear it, and I think she has a unique ability to do that given the perch that she has."

Vice President Kamala Harris met with Democratic members of the Texas Legislature in the Roosevelt Room of the White House June 16, 2021 in Washington DC. The lawmakers are pushing Congress to pass voting rights legislation. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Vice President Kamala Harris met with Democratic members of the Texas Legislature in the Roosevelt Room of the White House June 16, 2021 in Washington DC. The lawmakers are pushing Congress to pass voting rights legislation. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Getting it over the finish line

Voting rights legislation is a priority for congressional Democrats and the Biden administration. In March, the Democratic-controlled House passed, along party lines, the For the People Act, (HR1) a sweeping elections reform bill that would expand voters' rights.

It faces an uphill battle, however, in the Senate, where Republicans oppose it. It was dealt another blow last week when Sen. Joe Manchin, W.V., said he would not support it. But the moderate Democrat revived talks on the bill after he unveiled a compromise Wednesday that could change the political winds and notch the Biden administration a rare bipartisan win.

The Senate is expected to take an initial vote on the legislation next week, but it's unclear if Democrats will concede to Manchin's proposed changes.

Harris can use the platform of the vice presidency to make the case for passing the federal measures by rallying voters and pressuring congressional lawmakers, said Wendy R. Weiser, vice president and director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center.

“The administration needs to continuously signal how big a priority this is,’’ said Weiser. “That needs to happen in order to get it over the finish line.’’

Earlier this week a bipartisan group of about 21 female senators attended a private dinner Harris hosted at her residence at the Naval Observatory.

Democrats are also pushing for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would, among other things, restore a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to get federal clearance before making election changes. Senate Republican leaders have said they will oppose it.

The Brennan Center has tracked 389 bills in 48 states that it said would restrict access to voting. “This is the right moment for her to step up,’’ Weiser said of Harris.

Advocates say Democrats have an advantage because Harris can break a 50-50 tie, but the legislation faces the prospect of a GOP filibuster, a congressional tactic that essentially requires 60 Senate votes.

A senior administration official declined to say what other actions the White House might take if the bill fails to pass, but said Harris is working closely with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from North Carolina, said with more states adopting discriminatory election laws there’s an urgency to pass federal voting rights bills. He and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus aim to re-introduce the John Lewis bill by the end of July and hope the Senate will act on HR1 by the August recess.

Butterfield, chairman of the House Administration Committee's subcommittee on elections, said Harris could be helpful in getting the John Lewis measure passed and at least a compromise on the For the People Act.

“I think she can be persuasive,'' he said, adding Democratic Senate leaders would also help. “I believe there are lot of things working in our favor. Democrats have the ability to pass HR1 if we just use good common sense and try to work with Sen. Manchin and address some of his concerns.”

Vice President Joe Biden, center, leads a group across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama., March 3, 2013.
Vice President Joe Biden, center, leads a group across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama., March 3, 2013.

Swaying Republicans a 'tall order'

Championing voting rights is not new to Harris. She often recalls her younger years marching in civil rights protests with her parents and co-sponsored the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the For the People Act and introduced the SAFE Act, which expanded vote-by-mail and early in-person voting in last year's election as fears grew about the spread of COVID-19.

Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said with Harris’ experience in the Senate and her relationship with former colleagues she could be an asset for getting legislation passed.

“Vice President Harris could potentially be really helpful in terms of negotiating and moving things forward,’’ he said. “We know that with major pieces of legislation that presidential administrations often get very involved in those negotiations.”

But unlike her boss, Harris spent only four years in the Senate, some of which was devoted to running for president. White House officials declined to say whether she's reached out to Manchin, but said she and other White House officials have made calls to Capitol Hill.

South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the House majority whip and a veteran of the civil rights movement, said he expects he will talk to Harris about the issue.

"Everybody has their own style of doing things so I won't tell them how to do it," he said. "I just know what I want the result to be.''

But Harris will face major challenges trying to get Republicans to support federal voting rights legislation, particularly the For the People Act, experts said.

Hancock Alfaro called efforts to sway Republicans a “tall order.”

“She's not expected to save that Senate bill, what she is expected to do is to work with the states, and also to hopefully position the people and get that John Lewis voting rights bill from the House to get some serious consideration,’’ Hancock Alfaro said.

More: As America reckons with racism, Kamala Harris puts her identity as the first Black VP front and center

Wading into state battles

Harris' involvement is also part of a political strategy to have the vice president visit states, particularly battleground states, ahead of the midterms to talk about voting rights, among other issues, experts said.

The effort could appeal to Black voters, particularly Black women, and suburban women voters hard hit by the pandemic who want to hear about voting rights and the administration’s relief efforts, Hancock Alfaro said.

“Getting her involved now in the national fight would probably lead to her getting involved in some campaign related things in 2022,’’ she said, pointing to Harris’ meeting with Texas Democrats. “This is also her wading into several state battles, not just national battles over voting rights.’’

Butterfield called it a “very strategic’’ move by Biden to put Harris in charge. He noted that she’s a person of color, she’s number two in the administration and has tackled voting rights during her time in the Senate and as attorney general in California.

“She understands the big picture,’’ Butterfield said. “She’s the right person to lift up the issue and the challenges of voter dilution and vote denial.”

Gadson, who comes from a family of South Carolina activists, said it mattered to her that Harris wanted to hear her concerns.

“I didn’t feel like it was political posturing. I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, this is dibs on my next election.’ No, it wasn’t any of that,’’ said Gadson. “It spoke truth to power to her true intentions.”

Follow Deborah Berry and Courtney Subramanian on Twitter: @dberrygannett, @cmsub

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kamala Harris takes on voting rights, Senate mulls For The People Act

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