When Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about voting rights at Howard University this week, there was some negative reaction among Democrats that needs rethinking, as I argued at New York:
Reading this NBC News account of Vice-President Kamala Harris’s voting rights speech today, you get the sense she was offering up largely symbolic dollars to ward off criticism of the Biden administration for its failure to enact voting rights legislation:
“Vice President Kamala Harris will announce Thursday a $25 million investment by the Democratic National Committee to support efforts to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
“The announcement comes as Republican-controlled states around the country have passed a wave of restrictive voting rights laws fueled in part by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the results of the 2020 election.
“President Joe Biden has been criticized by some Democrats and civil rights advocates for not taking a more aggressive approach to fighting those new laws after Senate Republicans blocked voting rights legislation last month.”
It’s true Democrats have failed to overcome Republican resistance to voting-rights legislation, either by securing GOP support or by convincing Democratic centrists like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to restrict or abolish the competing right of Senate minorities to kill legislation via the filibuster. But it’s hard to blame Biden or Harris for this brick wall built over many decades, and it’s not clear to me what the critics would have them do other than threatening a nuclear strike on West Virginia. So instead of some sort of face-saving gesture, we should interpret Harris’s announcement as representing part of a fallback strategy for voting rights that is the only responsible course to take. Another prong of this strategy was announced by Attorney General Merrick Garland last month: deployment of an expanded cadre of attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to challenge state voter-suppression and election-subversion measures under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
To put it simply, if the Justice Department or voting rights advocates fail to stop such legislation at the state level or in the courts, the prudent thing is to devote resources to educate voters on how to navigate the roadblocks Republicans are erecting, and to mobilize them to exercise their rights. That’s what Harris has in mind, as CBS News reports:
“According to the vice president the funds would help with voter registration, help educate voters on some of the state laws being brought up by Republican led state legislations as well as mobilize voters in the upcoming 2022 elections. Harris also said the DNC would assemble the ‘largest voter protection team we have ever had.’”
“Voter protection” means staff on the ground to make sure voters (particularly the younger and minority voters most likely to support Democratic candidates) are not intimidated or misled by vote-suppressing election officials or partisan “volunteers” who “watch” polls with malice. These are the kinds of things you have to do to short-circuit voter suppression and rewire a flawed system to get people to the polls despite laws and politicians that try to keep them at home. What Harris announced should be treated as a serious and important contribution to the cause of voting rights, not dismissed as an excuse for failure to do the impossible in Congress.