Joe Biden Needs to Get Serious About Voting Rights

As a matter of both principle and self-interest, Joe Biden should pull out the stops to abolish the filibuster and safeguard the right to vote, which is now under threat from GOP governments in dozens of states. So far, he seems uninterested.

President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, DC. on September 3, 2021.(Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

No doubt some true believers among the base would beg to differ, but elites making strategy for the far-right Republican Party recognize that there is no majoritarian support for their agenda of mass immiseration, apocalypse, and theocratic patriarchy. Undaunted, right-wing activists nonetheless think they can stay in power over the long term by making it harder for working-class Americans, especially black Americans, to vote. Whether or not they’re right, the Left can’t afford to wait and find out: it needs to fight back, including by pressuring the president.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when men without property, black men, and women got the vote, each of these victories signaled a societal rejection of cruel exclusions and hierarchies, an expanded idea of who counted as a full human, an enlarged definition of the body politic. Republicans would like to arrest any further advances of this kind and rewind to a simpler and less civilized time.

To that end, Texas reactionaries, facing demographic and political changes that could profoundly threaten the ability of future reactionaries to hold power, have just passed a law that attempts to shrivel the franchise by making voting more complicated. The Texas legislation renders mail-in voting more difficult, empowers partisan “poll watchers,” bans twenty-four-hour and drive-through voting (which were excellent pandemic innovations by Houston), and creates new ways for citizens to be arrested for the crime of voting or even helping others to vote. This year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, thirty other states have passed similar laws, and more are in the works. It’s obvious that much of this is directly targeted at black voters in effect and intention.

These moves should be seen as outrages that demand federal intervention. The House has passed the For the People Act, which expands voter protections. Vermont senator Patrick Leahy has also introduced the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named for the civil rights leader who died last year, which aims to restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act after its gutting by the Supreme Court. Joe Biden needs to demand that Senate Democrats abolish the filibuster and do everything else he can to pass these bills.

It should be a matter of principle — of opposing racism and supporting democracy — for Democrats to oppose the right-wing attack on voting rights. And the stakes are even higher than usual: given the climate crisis and the pandemic, allowing undemocratic right-wing takeovers of state and federal government could easily result in vastly more mass death. Perhaps more to the point, voting rights are an existential question for any political formation left of the KKK: if Republicans can legislate away the franchise of working-class people who don’t share their politics, how can Democrats, or any progressives, hope to beat them in future national elections? If Biden plans to run for reelection in 2024, the matter should be one of concrete self-interest to him.

So far, he’s given no indication he sees it that way. Instead, Biden has defended the filibuster and made few major speeches on voting rights. This summer, the New York Times reported that Biden administration officials, on a private call with civil rights activists, expressed confidence that progressives could “out-organize” the Right even in the face of voter suppression laws. The administration’s smug and naive attitude was widely criticized, but, judging from the lack of action on the matter, Biden’s blasé stance on voter suppression doesn’t seem to have changed.

Recently, the situation has become intolerable even to establishment liberals, who normally only criticize Biden if he ends a war. On Sunday’s New York Times op-ed page, in a piece titled, “When Will Biden Join the Fight for Voting Rights?” Adam Jentleson, a former Harry Reid staffer who wrote a book about how the filibuster crippled the Senate, pointed out that Biden has been willing to bypass the filibuster to pass much of his agenda — economic stimulus, COVID relief — using simple majorities. In that context, Jentleson argued, Biden’s reluctance to either do the same for voting rights, or abolish the filibuster to pass voter protections, stands out. Jentleson wrote of the president, “it is impossible to look at the effort Mr. Biden has devoted to voting rights until now and conclude that he is pulling out all the stops. His heart does not seem to be in this fight.”

It’s easy to see why the party of horse pills and racism would want to strike one last blow against democracy. What’s not at all clear is why the Democrats should let them do it — or why we, the people, should enable the passivity of our leaders in both parties.