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A group of more than 150 civil rights groups have appealed to the White House to support passage of sweeping voting rights protections in Congress “by whatever means necessary” after President Joe Biden suggested a “coalition” of grassroots support could push back against a nationwide voter suppression campaign.
“We cannot and should not have to organise our way out of the attacks and restrictions on voting that lawmakers are passing and proposing at the state level,” the groups said in a letter on 22 July.
“Nor can we litigate our way out of this threat to democracy,” they told the president. “Nothing can serve as a substitute for your direct engagement and leadership in efforts to secure the passage of these critical voting rights bills.”
Despite his insistence that protecting and expanding the right to vote remains remains a “test of our time” and a definitive battle for his presidency, Mr Biden has not rallied Democrats around amending procedural rules in the Senate that have allowed Republicans to obstruct his agenda, while civil rights leaders have found themselves swimming upstream against a president whose rhetoric on voting rights has not matched his demands.
In a CNN town hall this week, the president was asked whether he believes that protecting the filibuster is “more important than protecting voting rights, especially for people who fought and died” for their right to vote.
“No. It’s not,” Mr Biden said. “But here’s the deal: What I also want to do – I want to make sure we bring along not just all the Democrats. We bring along Republicans, who I know know better. They know better than this. And what I don’t want to do is get wrapped up, right now, in the argument of whether or not this is all about the filibuster.”
Civil rights groups, activists and a growing body of Democratic lawmakers have found themselves at odds with a White House that continues to suggest a bipartisan path is possible against a tide of explicitly partisan attacks to undermine ballot access – in dozens of state-level bills filed exclusively by Republicans and among Republican members of Congress who have universally objected to voting rights proposals.
“While we fully support the ideal of bipartisan cooperation on voting rights, the partisan political agenda of some in the Senate cannot be allowed to block passage of legislation that has broad bipartisan backing,” the groups wrote in their letter to the president.
“And we certainly cannot allow an arcane Senate procedural rule to derail efforts that a majority of Americans support,” they said.
Buoyed by Donald Trump’s baseless “stolen election” narrative under the guise of preserving “election integrity” and “voter confidence”, Republican leaders in at least 17 states have enacted at least 28 new laws that restrict access to the ballot, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
A parallel effort from GOP lawmakers has seen more than 200 bills in 41 states that give themselves more authority over the electoral process, according to the States United Democracy Center. At least 24 of those bills have been signed into law.
In his impassioned address from Philadelphia earlier this month, the president called such proposals “election subversion” and “the most dangerous threat to voting”.
The US Supreme Court has also upheld two Arizona laws that voting rights advocates argued have disproportionately hurt minority voters – the high court’s second decision in the last decade to undermine a portion of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
Mr Biden’s call to “forge a coalition” in his Philadelphia address has frustrated civil rights groups who have fought for decades to secure voting rights protections, as the fundamental issue of casting a ballot in free and fair elections emerges as a campaign issue among Democrats and the White House instead of an immediate threat.
The Biden administration has responded by deploying Vice President Kamala Harris to meet with voting rights advocates and elections officials, while the US Department of Justice has reinforced its civil rights division and is scrutinising new restrictive elections laws. Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the Justice Department is suing the state of Georgia over its law.