Democratic frustration boils over with lack of progress on voting rights

On the same day that a Democratic proposal for federal election standards was blocked by a Republican filibuster, one of Georgia’s most prominent voting rights activists aired her frustrations on social media.

LaTosha Brown, the Georgia-based co-founder of Black Voters Matter, wanted to let the Democrats in charge in Washington know that she is losing patience.

“Personally, I am going to work as hard in the midterms as they work to secure voting rights protections,” she wrote on Twitter. “We will see.”

Brown later told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she blames Republicans — who have used numerous filibusters to block measures key to the Biden administration’s agenda — for being obstructionists.

The latest filibuster blocked debate on a measure that would make Election Day a holiday, limit voter purges, allow people to register to vote and cast a ballot the same day, and create national standards for redistricting, early voting, drop boxes and voting by mail.

But Brown wants to see more action and less talk from Democrats. She notes that Washington is controlled by Democrats today partially because of activists such as her who worked tirelessly through the 2020 presidential election and January U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia. She and many other activists perceive the larger issue is Democrats’ reluctance to alter the filibuster.

“The Democrats have a responsibility to use the fullness of the power which we’ve given them so that they actually protect the voting rights, they protect the democracy in this country,” she said. “I am glad that they’ve gotten on one page where there is the passage of the bill, but they also have another tool available to them, which is to end the filibuster for the sake of moving forward.”

Democrats want to pass federal legislation in part to offset new laws in Georgia and other states that restrict access to voting. Republicans who control the General Assembly said the changes were needed to ensure only eligible voters cast ballots and to increase confidence in election results. Democrats say the laws are intended to make it harder to vote, especially for people of color.

A poll conducted in May on behalf of the AJC found that 46% of Georgians approve of the new law and 44% oppose it. But there was a sharp partisan divide: 81% of Republicans supported the state’s changes while 75% of Democrats did not.

Creating federal legislation to blunt the impact of Georgia’s law has become a rallying cry for Democratic voters, and frustration over the lack of progress could leave even casual political observers disenchanted, Clark Atlanta University political science professor Kurt Young said. What matters most to these voters is the outcome of making voting easier, and they care less about process, he said.

But highly engaged voters such as Brown perceive the inability to pass a federal voting law as proof that electing like-minded candidates into office is no cure-all.

“The Democratic Party was able to win back the presidency, the Senate and the House, but the nuances are that the numbers aren’t high enough in either house to allow them to govern in a way that will produce prompt systematic change in a short amount of time,” Young said.

“People who are engaged at that level and they’re paying close attention, you will hear what LaTosha said resonate among them in terms of whether or not the Democratic Party is putting forth the same kind of energy that they, No. 1, have presented and, No. 2, is necessary for the kind of change that they were promised would occur.”

Carolyn Edwards, a retiree living in southwest Atlanta, wants Democrats to keep working to offset what Republicans have done at the state level. She thinks one option is Democrats passing a carve-out of the filibuster so it no longer applies to voting bills, but mostly she just wants to see that they haven’t given up.

“Maybe Biden could push a little harder,” she said. “Well, I think he’s doing it behind closed doors. We need to pass that bill; it needs to be passed.”

Republicans have used the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires 60 votes for bills to move forward, to block any action on federal voting legislation. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer plans to soon bring to the floor a second voting bill named after John Lewis that strengthens federal oversight of changes to state voting laws. Republicans, who say voting should remain a state issue and accuse Democrats of trying to solidify power, are expected to filibuster that, too.

Any rules change would require the cooperation of all 50 Senate Democrats. Centrists such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema have said they won’t go along.

Georgia U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who unseated Republican incumbents in January to give Democrats control of the Senate, said they are not giving up and don’t want their constituents to give up on them.

Warnock, who is up for reelection in 2022, has delivered floor speeches about voting rights and is one of the most prominent voices on the issue. He stops short of demanding Democrats get rid of the filibuster, but he says Senate rules should not get in the way of passing a bill that every member of the caucus supports.

“For the first time we have all 50 Democrats on this Freedom to Vote Act,” the Atlanta Democrat said. “We are moving the ball forward, we are aware of the urgency, and I’m going to keep pushing until we get it passed.”

Hillary Holley, who serves as the organizing director of the voter advocacy group Democrat Stacey Abrams founded called Fair Fight, said her organization works to keep its volunteers aware of what’s happening in Washington.

“We are seeing frustration, but what we are not seeing right now is a complete sense of hopelessness,” she said. “They show up, and they hear us, and they will keep fighting with us. But I will say it has been exhausting for them.”

Holley said that Fair Fight and its leaders plan to keep working on the issue and encouraging volunteers to do the same. But she said she would understand if Brown and other organizers decided to take a step back.

Without an all-hands-on-deck effort from activists, vulnerable Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Suwanee could suffer in the midterms. Bourdeaux has not been at the forefront of the effort to pass voting rights legislation but says that does not indicate her level of passion.

“I don’t know that it’s appropriate for me to be the leader on this,” said Bourdeaux, who is white. “I think the Black community gets to be the people out front, but I am emphatically lending myself to this effort.”

Bourdeaux said she isn’t concerned that the lack of progress could lead to apathy from organizers and voters back home, harming her reelection chances. But she believes her constituents will be negatively affected if nothing is done.

“People need to realize that in 2018 one-third of the absentee ballots thrown out in the state of Georgia came out of Gwinnett” County, she said. “I had a whole wing of my campaign devoted to voter protection; I’m worried about this from the standpoint of us being able to vote.”

Marvin Shannon, a resident of southwest Atlanta, said he wants to see the filibuster dissolved or altered so that Democrats can pass these federal proposals into law. But he said most important is working to defend the party’s majorities in Washington and ensuring Republicans don’t come back in power.

“There are people that are waiting to get back in and especially these Republicans that are sticking with Trump with ‘the lie, the big lie,’ ” Shannon said, referring to the former president’s false claims that voter fraud cost him his reelection. “I’m just hoping that those people get voted out. If we had 54 Democrats in the Senate that would be voting now, we wouldn’t have to even worry about what’s going on with Sinema. So, I think the key is we have to try to elect more Democrats.”

ExploreU.S. Senate Democrats revise voting bill