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White House announces $25 million investment in voting rights push

On voting rights and police reform, Congress has hit a standstill. But hoping to juice negotiations, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with civil rights leaders Thursday before announcing a $25 million investment in a Democratic National Committee voting rights initiative.

“If we don’t put the street heat on, it won’t happen,” the Reverend Al Sharpton said as he emerged from the private meeting at the White House where he and a litany of other civil rights leaders, legal experts and administration officials met to discuss the recent spate of restrictions on voting rights unfolding in mostly conservative-leaning states.   

In Georgia, voters are banned from receiving food or water in long lines. In Florida, new restrictions for mail-in voting are in place and Governor Rick DeSantis expanded power to the state’s poll watchers recently, now allowing them to record perceived wrongs at the polls that could later be billed as evidence of potential fraud.

That provision, in particular, has been slammed by voting rights advocates as little more than partisan sabotage and disability groups have expressed concern that the poll watching measure in Florida, particularly, will be used against individuals with disabilities who might require assistance completing a ballot.  

While Biden and Harris were holding their meeting with the leaders including Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Marc Morial of the National Urban League and others, Texas unveiled a slate of new voting restrictions. If passed in the weeks ahead, the newly unveiled provisions could ban drive-through voting, institute more voter ID criteria for mail-in ballots and more.

And at the Supreme Court, Arizona laws found to suppress minority votes were upheld in a 6-3 decision led by Justice Samuel Alito.

The “heat” Sharpton wants to focus is on the voting rights expansion bill, The For the People Act, legislation that was blocked by Senate Republicans in June.

“We informed [President Biden and Vice President Harris] this is going to come not from the White House down but from our houses up,” Sharpton said after the meeting in the Roosevelt Room.

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The For the People Act, or S.1, would automatically register voters, increase early voting, pour sunlight on political donation data for congressional districts and more.

The House of Representatives passed its own version of the voting rights expansion bill this March but when it got to the Senate floor, a procedural hurdle thrown up by Republicans barred even so much as debate, torpedoing any possibility of consideration, let alone passage, for now.

The meeting at the White House, which also included guests Johnetta Cole of the National Council of Negro Women, Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation, Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, Damon Hewitt of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law and Derrick Johnson of the NAACP by remote connection, lasted just under two hours.

“When we look at what is happening in this nation, we see an effort to impose a system of American apartheid,” Marc Morial told reporters Thursday.

President Biden has yet to make a public speech about the state of voting rights and a self-imposed congressional deadline to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act came and went in June.

Republicans have stymied progress on both fronts given the narrow Democratic margin in Congress, prompting calls from Democrats to end existing filibuster rules.

The fierce partisan rancor on Capitol Hill has left in its wake a graveyard of Democrat-backed bills in the House. From voting rights to gay and transgender rights to gun safety and labor organizing, without the support of at least 10 Republicans in the Senate on any of those measures or other Democrat-backed legislation, the required minimum of 60 votes to advance or pass, is effectively insurmountable.  

In response to the congressional gridlock and voting rights restrictions sweeping the nation, Vice President Harris announced Thursday that the Democratic National Committee is now going to invest $25 million into a voting rights program dubbed “I Will Vote.”

“I know there are folks out there saying, hold up, I know I just voted… so why are you coming to me now, talking about this now? And that’s fair. That’s a fair point. Yes, it is early and we have never really started this early before but folks, it is never too early to defend your rights,” Harris said.

With the new laws that have been passed, Harris added Thursday: “We have to start now to finish strong.”

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The pool of funds will be used to beef up voter education and protection measures and improve voter registration technology to start, the Democratic National Committee said in a statement Thursday.  The $25 million comes in addition to $20 million already invested this year by the DNC’s chair Jamie Harrison.

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NIH/Chiachi Chang

Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris speaks at the National Institute of Health on Jan. 26, 2021. Harris announced Thursday that the Democratic National Committee is now going to invest $25 million into a voting rights program dubbed 'I Will Vote.'