WASHINGTON — Voting rights advocates meet once every week or two with White House officials via video conference, and in almost every session, an advocate speaks up to say that President Joe Biden must do more, that American democracy is under threat and the president is not meeting the challenge.
At one such meeting earlier this year, a Biden aide responded that Democrats would simply have to “out-organize” the other side, according to multiple advocates familiar with the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting. The comment infuriated advocates, who believe they are watching former president Donald Trump actively and perhaps permanently undermine faith in U.S. elections.
“There’s been a lot of anger and frustration with that line from the White House, which was communicated as a response to advocates wanting the White House to do more,” said Aaron Scherb, legislative director of Common Cause, a longtime pro-democracy group.
Scherb conceded that the White House’s urgency has significantly amped up in recent days, as voting rights legislation comes up for debate on Capitol Hill,, and White House officials denied the activists’ account of the meeting. But the ongoing frustration is widespread among activists and many Democrats who fear Biden is missing the urgency of the moment.
In the nine months since Biden took office, GOP officials throughout the country have baselessly challenged the 2020 results, conducting elaborate and clumsy audits. States have restricted voting, often in ways activists say will hurt disadvantaged communities, and have changed their procedures to allow political influence over future elections.
Trump, meanwhile, frequently proclaims — with much fury but no evidence — that the last election was stolen, and some Republicans routinely assert that upcoming votes will be rigged as well. Many in Trump’s camp have taken to lauding the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was aimed at violently overturning the last election, as a heroic act.
Activists want Biden to provide a loud, clear voice against these moves, from prime-time speeches to regular denunciations of especially egregious actions. Beyond that, they say he should throw himself into passing voting rights legislation and more aggressively go after states that are politicizing their election systems.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates said the account of the meeting with voting rights advocates was false. “No White House official has ever said that our strategy relied on ‘out-organizing’ anti-voter laws,” Bates said. “The president and vice president’s approach is comprehensive, and it includes passing voting rights legislation and using executive authority, the bully pulpit, the convening power of the White House, organizing, and a host of other tools.”
Still, in the months since taking office, Biden’s time and energy have largely been focused elsewhere.
Shoring up democracy was not among the four crises — coronavirus, the economy, climate change and racial equity — that he promised to tackle upon taking office. He has not yet devoted a full prime-time address to the topic, as he did in March to commemorate the anniversary of pandemic shutdowns.
His top priorities in Congress right now are an infrastructure bill and a social safety-net package. The Senate next week is again expected to take up voting rights legislation, which the administration and outside groups view as critical, but it has little chance of passage without changes to the Senate filibuster.
“I think the pulpit could be bullier,” said Damon Hewitt, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, said the administration’s lack of urgency about safeguarding democracy, especially by shoring up voting rights, is “appalling … I have heard from many of my colleagues and members that the lack of priority around voting rights will be the undoing of the legacy for this presidency.”
Hewitt, who met with Biden at the White House alongside other civil rights leaders in July, said it is a mistake for activists to put the onus entirely on the Biden administration to protect democratic institutions. But he said he would like to see the president be more forceful in attacking voting restrictions.
For many Biden allies, what they see as his tepid response is especially jarring when matched against his urgent rhetoric during the campaign, which framed his entire candidacy as an effort to restore and protect democracy.
He announced his candidacy in a short video that was light on biography and policy — and instead revolved around the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, warning that “our very democracy” was at stake and casting his campaign as an urgent mission to combat the threat posed by Trump.
After winning the Democratic nomination, Biden similarly framed his candidacy as crucial to the effort to “save our democracy.”
And just hours after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Biden — taking the stage in Wilmington, Del., before Trump addressed the nation — renewed his calls to fortify the country’s institutions and ideals, exhorting, “The work of the moment, and the work of the next four years, must be the restoration of democracy, of decency, of honor, of respect, the rule of law.”
Many pro-democracy groups and advocates say they are “anxiously optimistic” — in the words of Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law — that the administration will ultimately turn its full focus to safeguarding democracy, but they are frustrated by the dearth of tangible results so far.
Even some top Democrats are expressing public concern, worried that moves by Republican state officials — like making election overseers more beholden to political leaders — could set back their party for a generation.
On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton tweeted out an article titled, “How the GOP Will Try To Subvert Our Elections,” by Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer focused on voting rights who was the general counsel of her 2016 presidential campaign. “I fear Democrats still aren’t taking this threat sufficiently seriously,” Clinton wrote.
Administration officials dispute these characterizations, saying Biden and his team recognize the threat and are doing all they can. “As the president said explicitly, these radical assaults on constitutional rights and on American democracy constitute ‘the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War’ and voting rights legislation is a must-pass ‘national imperative,’ ” Bates said.
Simply because the president is not answering Trump’s every false provocation about the 2020 election does not mean he’s not fiercely engaged, aides say.
“If we tried to debunk every lie that President Trump told — during my career in Congress, it was like 17,000 of them — so we would stay busy all day, every day,” said Cedric Richmond, a senior White House adviser and former Louisiana congressman.
The White House, for example, fully backs plans by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to hold a procedural vote soon on a compromise voting rights bill that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., helped craft in hopes of winning Republican votes.
The legislation is not expected to advance, but Schumer hopes the vote will demonstrate that Republicans are refusing to work with Democrats on the issue, increasing pressure on his own party to change the filibuster rules and push through an expansion of voting rights.
In March, Biden signed an executive order to promote voting rights, directing federal agencies to develop a plan to encourage voter registration and participation, among other measures. Biden has asked Vice President Kamala Harris to take on voting rights as an area of focus, and last summer she announced a $25 million expansion of the Democratic National Committee’s “I Will Vote” initiative, which focuses on voter protection, education and registration.
Biden officials also argue that legal actions can be more effective than aggressive speeches. The Justice Department has announced a doubling of its voting rights enforcement staff, and in June, the department sued Georgia over new voting restrictions that it alleged deliberately discriminate against Black Americans
More recently, the White House waived executive privilege for some of the Trump-era documents being sought by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks, a move officials say is in the interest of protecting democracy.
Richmond argued that these actions reflect the White House approach of taking the actions that will accomplish the most, not those that are necessarily the loudest or most public. “Many people may want to see the president’s involvement on cable news or on TV, but that’s probably not the most effective way to get this legislation done,” he said. “This is not about ego for us. This is about results.”
The problem with that argument, several advocates said, is that millions of Americans are steadily absorbing disinformation from Trump and his allies, and even many moderates have come to question the integrity of U.S. elections. The moment demands a loud and public campaign to shore up faith in American democracy, they said.
Biden’s defenders argue that there is real risk in responding to Trump’s every provocation, saying doing so amplifies his false and baseless claim that the election was stolen. They also contend that he has in fact spoken passionately about democracy at several high-profile moments, including his inauguration — which he described as the triumph of “the cause of democracy” — and before a joint session of Congress in April.
“The insurrection was an existential crisis, a test of whether our democracy could survive,” Biden told the lawmakers at the time, before concluding, “We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people.”
During a July speech on voting rights at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the president pushed back on Trump’s false claims of election fraud, saying, “the ‘big lie’ is just that: a big lie.”
At the Justice Department, meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick Garland has spoken of restoring the norms established by Edward Levi, the attorney general in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Garland has a portrait of Levi hanging in his conference room, as well as one of Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who refused Richard M. Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and instead resigned, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
White House officials have told voting-rights advocates that Biden will not pressure Garland on voting rights, because the president believes it is more important to restore the department’s independence in the wake of Trump’s presidency.
Biden also makes another argument, one that particularly exasperates activists: The best way to strengthen democracy, he contends, is to show that it works, by passing the infrastructure and other bills.
But even inside the administration, some worry that too much emphasis on enacting Biden’s spending priorities could come at the expense of the need to safeguard democratic institutions.
And the approach is deeply unsatisfying to those who see the threat to democracy as akin to a house on fire. Biden’s hope that Americans will support Democrats, and democracy more broadly, if he delivers results, could be torpedoed by restrictive voting laws that make it harder to cast ballots in the first place — or by undemocratic forces with the power to reject the results of the 2022 or 2024 elections.
“Stacking election administrators and providing access to the means to control the levers of elections” is a growing threat, said Sophia Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
Polls suggest that the advocates’ concern is warranted, in that the public’s faith in democracy is being badly eroded.
Surveys consistently find that about 1 in 3 Americans — and more than 6 in 10 Republicans — doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 election, despite overwhelming evidence that it was fairly decided. A CNN poll in September found that 52% of Americans were not confident that U.S. elections reflect the will of the people.
And changes are underway across the country that could exacerbate that distrust.
According to the Brennan Center’s most recent voting laws roundup, as of the end of September, more than 425 bills with provisions that restrict voting access had been introduced in 49 states. And 19 states had already enacted 33 laws making it harder for Americans to vote.
But allies, and even some critics, say there is a limit to what Biden can do, since individual states have so much power to determine their own election procedures.
“Honestly, this is just not an area where they can do much,” said Ben Ginsberg, a Republican elections lawyer and Trump critic. Ginsberg recently helped launch a nonprofit network to provide elections administrators with free legal help.
Waldman said the most powerful thing the administration can do is help push voting rights legislation through Congress, where so it far it has stalled amid the Democrats’ slim majorities, including a 50-50 split in the Senate.
“The president can’t wave a magic wand to make things happen, and simply using the bully pulpit does not guarantee results,” Waldman said. “President Biden’s words when he has talked about this have been very powerful — but it has not so far been a clear, consistent, urgent priority.”
The Washington Post’s Scott Clement and Annie Linskey contributed to this report.