Vice President Kamala Harris said Thursday the Democratic National Committee would more than double its planned spending on voter registration, outreach and protections ahead of the 2022 midterm election, but civil rights groups said a law is needed to counter new voting restrictions in some GOP-led states.
“We have never really started this early before,” Harris told cheering students at Howard University. “But folks, it is never too early to defend your rights.”
Harris’ comments, at a Democratic Party event at Howard, her alma mater, came after months of Democratic losses on voting rights in the Supreme Court and some Republican-controlled state legislatures. She said the party would spend $25 million on top of $20 million already announced for a party program called “I Will Vote” that began in 2014.
Her address at the nation’s most prominent historically Black university was intended to link the effort to the civil rights movement. However, when Harris and President Biden later met for an hour and 40 minutes with civil rights leaders, the activists pressed for greater effort to get Congress to pass bills expanding voting access over Republican opposition.
“We will not be able to litigate our way out of this threat to Black citizenship voting and political participation,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told reporters afterward. “We must have legislation. We must have the president use his voice, use his influence, use his power and use what he clearly understands about this moment.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton promised “a summer of activism” and “a summer of saying to the Senate and the Congress, ‘You may be going home, but it’s going to be warmer politically than you think on the ground.’”
The White House focus on voting comes at a time when Democrats and voting rights advocates are despairing over legal and political setbacks on the issue. An ambitious Democratic voting rights bill in Congress, which would bar some of the state efforts to limit voting access, was blocked by Senate Republicans last month, shortly after Biden tapped Harris to lead on the issue.
The Supreme Court last week greatly weakened a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act allowing challenges to election laws, in a 6-3 ruling in which its six conservative members were the majority. The decision upheld Republican-sponsored rules in Arizona that include a requirement for elections officials to throw out ballots cast in the wrong precinct, though the plaintiffs had argued that based on past experience, the policy would result in tossing twice as many ballots from minority voters as white voters.
The ruling is expected to make it much harder for Democrats to prevail in lawsuits against states, including Georgia, that have passed new voting restrictions in recent weeks following false claims by former President Trump that the 2020 election was rigged against him.
“These laws create obstacle upon obstacle,” Harris said. “These laws make it harder for you to vote because they don’t want you to vote.”
Republicans argue that Democrats are mischaracterizing the intent of the bills, which the GOP says are meant to prevent fraud.
“In a desperate effort to push their federal takeover of elections, Democrats continue to lie to the American people,” Danielle Álvarez, Republican National Committee communications director, said in a statement Thursday. “Democrats refuse to join Republicans in supporting common-sense policies like voter ID, because their sole agenda is more power and partisan control.”
Some Democrats, including voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, have said they would consider identification requirements as part of a comprehensive federal voting rights law.
Nonpartisan studies have found little evidence of fraudulent voting, and none on a scale that would reverse election results.
In late May, Texas Democrats blocked Republicans’ initial attempt at passing voting restrictions by walking out during the regular legislative session.
The latest broadly written bill would ban drive-in voting, prevent election officials from sending out mail-in ballots unless voters request them, and stiffen potential criminal penalties for election officials, among other provisions.
Democrats, so far, have had little success in combating such laws.
“People say ‘What’s the strategy?’” Harris said. “Well, I just outlined it. We are going to assemble the largest voter protection team we have ever had to ensure that all Americans can vote and have your vote counted in a fair and transparent process.”
Democratic officials declined to say how much the party had spent on similar efforts in prior election cycles.
“In the past we have invested many millions of dollars in our voting rights litigation, voter protection staffing, voter education and protection technology,” said Adrienne Watson, DNC communications director. “This is the first time that we have launched a comprehensive program with a dedicated commitment across the board, and it represents a substantial overall increase that dwarfs our previous spending.”
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