Democrats search for a strategy to combat GOP voting laws

WASHINGTON — A small group of civil rights leaders gathered at Vice President Kamala Harris’ ceremonial office last week to discuss 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 strategy, and possibly the most difficult: passing Democrats’ sweeping federal overhaul of elections, the For the People Act, commonly known as HR1.

“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 session highlighted the search for a strong defense against laws that Democrats say are designed to make it harder to vote. Democrats lack the numbers in many statehouses to block Republicans from passing the tighter rules. Corporate statements and street protests have made Republicans uncomfortable and softened some of the legislation, but not stopped it. Lawsuits 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 Republican-backed state rules. But a Senate hearing on the legislation this week was a display of united Republican 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,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., 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, largely Democratic-controlled ones, have also expanded voting; so has 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. It’s 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 that the new, tighter rules are needed to restore confidence in the election system.

The laws have triggered more than a dozen suits from Democrats and civil rights groups. The challenges generally allege the 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, said the litigation was “not the optimal way to go.”

Suits 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.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court removed the requirement that certain states get advance approval from the federal Justice Department 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 because the justices are expected to rule soon on a 2016 Arizona voting case 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.”

President Joe Biden, who has said the laws are a sign the nation is “backsliding into the days of Jim Crow,” has said the Justice Department is looking at the new Georgia law.

“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, put in place national automatic voter registration and prohibit partisan gerrymandering.

While Republicans oppose the legislation, moderate Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona oppose rewriting Senate rules to pass the proposal with simple 51-vote majority. Right now, it need 60 votes to clear a Republican filibuster.

Manchin on Wednesday expressed support for a narrower voting bill — one that would restore the requirement that the Justice Department “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.

Still, Democrats seemed to have no clear path forward Thursday after they spent part of their weekly Senate lunch to discussing HR1 and voting. Manchin wasn’t even there; he was in West Virginia hosting a visit from first lady Jill Biden.

Democratic pledged to plow ahead, hoping the dynamics of HR1 would somehow change. “We got to take it to the floor and spend some real time there to have this ripen,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “Hearts and minds can change when there’s real effort that’s made.”

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 launched ads promoting the new Georgia law as a commonsense way to secure elections. The left-leaning Just Democracy this week began a campaign in Arizona and Georgia featuring a speech by the late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a longtime 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.

Henderson recounted that Harris “did make clear that she and the president will use their bully pulpit to encourage Congress to make some impact.”

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