Leading voting rights activists came away frustrated and alarmed from what they hoped would be a breakthrough meeting last month at the White House to discuss a strategy to pass federal voting rights legislation.
There were high hopes for the 15 November teleconference between the White House and the leaders of the hundreds of groups that comprise the Declaration for American Democracy (Dfad), many of which have been campaigning hard for federal voting rights legislation. Kamala Harris had agreed to stop by the meeting.
After Joe Biden gave a strong endorsement in late October of altering the Senate filibuster rule for voting rights legislation, the activists hoped that the White House would lay out a course for getting the stalled bills through the US Senate.
Instead, multiple people who attended the meeting said they didn't hear any kind of plan from the White House.
The vice-president, who is leading the White House's voting rights effort, arrived midway through the meeting and read just over six minutes of prepared remarks and then left without taking any questions, according to people who attended.
White House staffers stayed on the call and answered three questions from participants. "They did not lay out a strategy for getting this done," said one person who attended, who requested anonymity to discuss a private meeting.
Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, also attended the meeting and said it felt like a "check-the-box kind of a call".
"Nothing substantive came out of it," he said. "It was very frustrating."
A third participant was also critical of the way the White House handled the meeting.
"She said her five-minute remarks, which were the 'same-old, same old', and then she left", said the person, who also requested that their name not be disclosed.
"We had hoped going into that meeting that after the president's comments at the town hall that there would have been some sort of strategic shift, some sort of internal tactical thinking and planning done. It was, from that meeting, clear that no work had been done legislatively," the person added. "They seemed pretty eager to talk about anything other than legislation."
There is dismay that the senate could recess before the end of the year without passing voting rights bills, making itharder to implement sweeping voting changes ahead of fast-approaching primaries for the 2022 midterm elections. Alarm has escalated as Republicans in several crucial states have enacted new distorted electoral maps that will entrench their majorities for the next decade.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, has said voting rights are a priority and his caucus is trying to find a way around the filibuster. But the plan remains unclear.
Harris has held meetings with voting advocates in South Carolina, Georgia and Michigan over the last few months to keep a spotlight on the issue. She has said she has spoken with Republican senators about a path forward on voting rights.
"The vice-president and this administration remain focused on passing the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Senate Republicans have voted against even debating these bills, but the president and vice-president know that inaction and obstruction are not options," deputy White House press secretary Sabrina Singh told the Guardian.
"Nothing comes without a fight, which is why the president and vice-president are working with Speaker Pelosi, leader Schumer, and advocates to protect our democracy and the fundamental right to vote," she added, referring to the most senior Democrats in the House and Senate. Albright said he asked staffers how the administration would, for example, halt excessive gerrymandering, but the response "just wasn't satisfactory".
"The worst situation to be in is to have responsibility without authority. And right now that is the definition of her [Harris'] voting rights portfolio. She's got responsibility, but she does not have the authority to deal with the elephant in the room, the filibuster," he said.
"She cannot go any farther out on the issue than her boss, Potus, is willing to go. And he has not yet demonstrated that he's willing to go as far as he needs to."
Lisa Gilbert, executive vice-president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, who helped organize the meeting, said she was encouraged by Harris' attendance. "The vice-president doesn't attend many coalition meetings. It's actually a signifier, or at least we hope it is, of greater engagement from the White House, and the seriousness that the vice-president takes it with."
Activists have been pressuring Biden for months to use his bully pulpit to more aggressively push for the voting rights bills. Demonstrators have been regularly convening outside the White House and getting arrested.
"The frustration is not tied to that meeting. There has been a concern all year long that goes to the president and the White House with the failure to treat this existential threat as a top priority for the administration," said Fred Wertheimer, the founder and president of Democracy 21, who also attended the meeting.
Jana Morgan, the director of Dfad, also said she was happy Harris attended the meeting and anticipated "increased engagement" from the White House.
In July, Biden gave a speech in Philadelphia that called for passing voting rights legislation, but didn't say anything about the filibuster. Republicans have used the rule to block voting bills four separate times this year, in a chamber split 50-50 with the Democrats.
But then in October, Biden more explicitly endorsed changing the filibuster on voting rights "and maybe more".
But Biden urged patience, saying that pressuring reluctant Democrats on the filibuster could make it more difficult to pass other important pieces of legislation.
One of the participants in the meeting said staffers conveyed a similar message, saying voting rights legislation would have to wait until after the Senate dealt with the Build Back Better bill.
"We know what it's like when the president treats something as a priority…But we know that we haven't seen that when it comes to voting rights," Wertheimer said.