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Covering Kamala Harris Covering Kamala Harris

Essential Politics: Harris wanted to work on voting rights. Advocates want results

Harris sits at a long table, wearing a black mask and tan suit
Vice President Kamala Harris at a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 in Washington, DC.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Whenever you ask allies of Vice President Kamala Harris about her trouble in public opinion polls, they usually point to the tough assignments she has been given, with some blaming the Biden administration for sticking her with its thorniest problems, including the sharp increase in migrants coming to the border from Central America.

The vice president is also spearheading the Biden administration’s efforts to battle a slew of Republican-sponsored bills in state legislatures that Democrats say are designed to curtail voting rights. The fight is a top priority of progressives in her party, and the ability to beat back such legislation could have enormous electoral consequences for Democrats.

This particular hot potato wasn’t assigned to Harris. She sought it out. In actively taking the baton and becoming the administration’s public face on voting rights, the vice president truly owns the effort’s success or failure, in a way that doesn’t apply to confounding assignments thrown into her lap. It is also arguably the most politically urgent one to solve.

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Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics, Kamala Harris edition. This week, I will discuss where things stand on voting rights after the Senate went into recess last week without passing a bill, and why activists want more out of Harris and the Biden administration.

‘One of those things in the sausage-making process’

As U.S. senators were packing up for a month-long break last week, the Texas Legislature was moving through a bill that would ban drive-thru voting, restrict times for early voting, give more access to partisan poll watchers and impose criminal penalties on election officials who send unsolicited ballot request forms. The Texas bill, which passed the Senate after Democrats staged walkouts and a filibuster and will almost certainly be approved in the House, was only the latest around the U.S. to advance legislation that election experts say will make it harder for many Americans to vote.

Democratic efforts to pass a national bill that would preserve and expand voting rights have stalled.

Sen. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) promised on the Senate floor last week to consider a new compromise bill in September; that would follow a June effort that failed to win any Republican support.

“We saw what it looks like when the Senate comes together,” Schumer said, referring to the $1-trillion infrastructure bill that drew 19 Republican votes.

“This is what it looks like when it doesn’t,” he continued, referring to voting rights legislation that has no Republicans on board.

White House officials say the issue is a priority. Biden gave a major speech in Philadelphia last month on what he called “the 21st century Jim Crow assault” on democracy and voters of color, in particular. Harris has spoken with civil rights groups, disability groups and others.

Officials say Harris and Biden have talked to senators from both parties, seeking to build consensus around a bill. They would not provide details about whom they contacted, nor would they articulate a path that might overcome Republican opposition.

“I don’t think that this gets wrapped up in a nice neat little bow in terms of ‘Here’s the strategy,’” said one top White House official. “This is one of those things in the sausage-making process that’s going to be head to the ground, hard work until it gets done.”

‘Priorities are established through actions’

Harris has tried to play an outside game as well, meeting with people around the country. On Friday, she spoke on Instagram with the 18-year-old actress Storm Reid, talking up the need for federal legislation and for young people to vote, especially if they want to address climate change, gun laws and other issues.

But none of these actions has moved the ball. No Republicans are on board at the national level. Harris has failed to stop any state bills from advancing. Legislation in Congress is stalled, and it does not appear Biden will push Democrats to take the steps necessary to ram it through — the president has said he will not support changing the Senate filibuster rule that requires most bills receive a supermajority of 60 votes to pass. That gives Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky an effective veto.

House Democrats released a new voting bill Tuesday, promising a vote next week. But the real hold-up remains in the Senate, where Republicans hold more leverage.

Activists want more, noting that Biden, in his Philadelphia speech, called the Republican-sponsored state laws “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history.”

Bishop William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, said both Harris and Biden have to treat voting rights, along with economic inequality, as moral imperatives, with an “all-out focus.”

“You see the infrastructure [bill] pass and then you see the other infrastructure crumble ... the infrastructure of our democracy,” said Barber, who delivered the homily at Biden and Harris’ inauguration service.

Barber, who has joined other religious leaders in marching and writing letters, wants Biden and Harris getting into more states, calling broader groups of people to the White House, and making the case that the issue affects white miners in West Virginia as much as Black people in cities.

Both Biden and Harris have talked about the need to counter Republican bills by stepping up Democratic Party efforts to organize. Harris announced the party would spend more on such efforts during a speech last month. But Barber and others don’t see that as much of a path.

“The advocates on the ground are fighting tooth and nail against the Texas governor and the Republican leadership,” said Carisa Lopez, political director for the Texas Freedom Network, a progressive social justice advocacy organization. “But we need help. We can’t do this without federal legislation.”

For now, White House officials are hopeful that a group of Democratic senators including moderate Joe Manchin III of West Virginia can draft a compromise bill that will attract some Republicans. But most activists and experts think they will need to carve out an exception to the filibuster rule, given Republican intransigence.

Census data released last week quantified a changing America, with more city dwellers and people of color and fewer rural Americans and white people, something my colleague David Lauter analyzed in Friday’s Essential Politics newsletter. That’s a problem for Republicans. And it bolsters the Democrats’ case that the effort to curtail voting options, inspired by former President Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud, are intended to allow the party to cling to its shrinking base of white rural voters.

Harris’ advisors say she sought to spearhead the issue for the White House because she is passionate about it. But she’s not being judged on effort. Democrats want results.

NCAACP President Derrick Johnson puts more of the onus on the Senate, but said in an interview that it’s time “to get past conversations.”

“Priorities are not established through speeches. Priorities are not established through statements,” he said. “Priorities are established through actions.”

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The latest on Afghanistan

— On Monday, President Biden, facing the biggest political crisis of his term, defended the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan amid the rapid collapse of the country’s government, taking responsibility for ending the 20-year war but deflecting blame for the “hard and messy” events of recent days, writes Eli Stokols. Here are five takeaways from the speech.

— Harris has touted her role on Afghanistan policy. Now, she owns the fallout, too, I write.

— It was unclear Monday how many Afghans the U.S. plans to evacuate, who would receive priority or where they would go, writes Molly Hennessy-Fiske. The uncertainty was tormenting enclaves such as the Bay Area’s Little Kabul, home to more than 60,000 Afghan immigrants.

— Built and trained at a cost of $83 billion, Afghan security forces collapsed so quickly and completely that the ultimate beneficiary of the American investment has turned out to be the Taliban, which grabbed not only political power but also U.S.-supplied firepower — guns, ammunition, helicopters and more.

The view from Washington

— Some representatives have barely voted in person since COVID-19 began, with California’s congressional members ranked among the most frequent users of a House proxy-voting rule, reports Sarah D. Wire. Should proxy voting continue?

— Seven weeks before an important wildfire monitoring program is slated to lose access to Pentagon satellite data, 31 Democrats from California on Monday demanded the Defense Department commit to continuing the access that firefighters have come to rely on, reports Jennifer Haberkorn.

— The Biden administration on Monday announced it had approved a change to boost average food stamp benefits by more than 25%, a record and permanent increase above prepandemic levels, writes Erin B. Logan.

Former President Trump has made it his singular mission to undermine the 2020 election he irrefutably lost. A group of researchers have set about debunking many of the baseless assertions, showing how the facts don’t line up, writes Mark Z. Barabak.

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The latest on the California recall

— Republicans hoping to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom after the Sept. 14 recall election have vowed to rescind a series of statewide COVID-19 vaccination and mask mandates, writes Phil Willon. Can they?

— The candidates’ field narrowed Tuesday when former Rep. Doug Ose announced he was dropping out of the race after a heart attack, Julia Wick writes.

— Will your write-in vote in California’s recall election count? Maybe not, Jon Healey reports.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting, including full coverage of the recall election and the latest action in Sacramento.

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