“Advocates worry Biden is letting U.S. democracy erode on his watch”


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 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….

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…

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 percent 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.

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