Voting rights activists say Democrats in Washington need to do their job
As voters trickled into a community center to cast ballots near West Manor Park in Atlanta, singer Gabe Lustman performed as a part of a "Party at the Polls."
Lustman, dressed in a royal purple shirt, played as a DJ pumped music through two portable speakers.
"We're just getting started," he said. "Shout out to the New Georgia Project."
The New Georgia Project, an organization aimed at registering and mobilizing people of color and young people, holds events like this one Tuesday to keep voters' spirits high while they wait to cast a ballot.
But the organization has also marshalled its voter protection program in a vigorous push against Georgia's controversial voting law. That law is one of a wave of new measures restricting ballot access in Republican-led states.
Organizers in Georgia and across the country say they're doing all they can to fight back against these laws and turn out voters. But they also say what they haven't gotten — at least not yet — is much help from Washington, D.C.
"What we need is for people to do their jobs," Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, said in an interview from her Atlanta office. "I'm doing mine."
With Democrats' slim majority in Congress, they've been unable to pass federal legislation to push back against restrictive voting laws at the state level. Republicans say the laws are meant to ensure "election integrity," but Democrats and activists say they intentionally make it harder for some people, particularly people of color, to vote.
In Georgia, the new law, SB 202, restricts ballot access in a number of ways, including adding more hurdles for absentee voting. Among its provisions, it also limits who can pass out food and water to voters waiting in line, and where that can occur.
Ufot says Republicans seem to have a clear, unified strategy to sharply limit ballot access. Democrats, she countered, are not as unified around the cause of voting rights.
"Why do we not have that clarity and that consensus and that urgency among Democrats?" she asked. "That urgency, that clarity exists among activists. And so we are looking forward to having our Democratic leaders join us."
"This is a moment for action"
President Biden has described these GOP state laws as a once-in-a-lifetime assault on the right to vote.
And Vice President Harris, who is spearheading the White House's efforts on the issue — an assignment she personally requested — told civil rights activists this week that the nation is at an "alarming" and "consequential" moment.
"This is a moment for action," Harris said Monday in a speech to the National Action Network. "And whether we take an oath of office or we take to the streets, we all have an important role to play. "
Harris, who has been convening regular discussions on the issue, urged civil rights activists to keep fighting.
"Yeah, the time is to fight, we've taken enough defensive blows," the group's leader, the Rev. Al Sharpton, said Wednesday after Senate Republicans again blocked debate on a piece of major voting rights legislation. This time, it was the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is named for the late Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who died last year.
"Today Black America was stabbed in the back. The president needs to use his bully pulpit and say that this is intolerable," Sharpton said.
Sharpton is among those calling for Democrats to change Senate filibuster rules to allow voting rights bills to pass with just their votes. But it's unclear whether Democrats have a path to do that, with not even all of their members on board.
For his part, Biden has said he would be open to a move to "fundamentally alter" the filibuster, but not until his spending bills passed in Congress.
The White House says the administration is pursuing a multipronged approach to protecting voting rights that includes calling on Congress to pass legislation and executive actions, but also organizing and other tools.
The White House points to the executive order that Biden signed in March to promote voting rights. And Harris announced a $25 million expansion of the Democratic National Committee's "I Will Vote" program, which focuses on voter protection, education and registration.
Democrats lean on tech for voter rolls
DNC Chair Jaime Harrison described this as a "break the glass" moment in which the party must be more "proactive" about protecting the right to vote.
He pointed to one way Democrats are using technology to combat what they label voter suppression efforts.
"Somebody could have voted in the last few elections, but because they miss one election, they get a postcard sent in by the Republican Election Commission in some state. and if they don't turn that postcard in, then they are purged from the voter rolls," Harrison said by way of example.
"We're able to get their contact information to have our canvassers and our organizers get in contact with them," he continued. "We are even able to match them up to social media data so that we can get in contact with them and say, 'Hey, listen, you have just been purged from the Georgia voter rolls. Do you want to register to vote again?' "
But when it comes to federal legislation, Harrison also said he believes Congress must move as quickly as possible.
"It's important that we accelerate the pace here in order to really have an impact, particularly on the 2022 election cycle, to make sure that not one American is prohibited from exercising the right to vote," he said.
The Justice Department has also doubled its voting rights enforcement staff, and sued Georgia and, just Thursday, Texas over voting restrictions.
New concerns in Virginia
Frustration among activists isn't limited to states where ballot access has been restricted. There are also fears of what could come in the future.
In Virginia, ballot access has been expanded under Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. But some activists worry that the state could veer back to its long-held restrictions on voting rights.
"The way that I voted when I first moved here is not the same way that I can vote now. It is so much easier. There is a 45-day early voting period. People no longer need their photo ID to vote," said Maya Castillo, the political director of New Virginia Majority. "I don't want to lose all that."
Castillo was helping to organize a group of canvassers in her Fairfax, Va., neighborhood a little more than a week before Republican Glenn Youngkin won that state's governor's race, though the party does not control the state General Assembly.
Now, many activists warn that if Democrats in Washington can't do more to protect the right to vote, losses could be on the horizon in 2022 and beyond.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.