Politics

Is Biden’s Voting Rights Push Too Late?

Activists demand more than gestures and speeches to protect voting rights.

Activist holds a sign.
Illustration by Slate.

Since the violent Jan. 6 terrorist attack failed to overturn the 2020 election results, many Republican leaders have turned to state legislation to make it harder for Black and brown Americans to vote. Nineteen states have passed voting restriction laws since then, with more under consideration. That’s a threat to much of the Democratic party base, and—as the president pointed out in his speech in Georgia this week—this affects democracy itself.

But many of the activists who help lift Biden to victory are unimpressed with the administration’s efforts to support their work. So what’s next for efforts for protecting voting rights and who’s leading them? On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Nsé Ufot about dangers to voting rights, frustrations with Biden, and the dire consequences for people of color should voting protection efforts fail. She’s the CEO of the New Georgia Project, an organization that helped bring hundreds of thousands of new voters in Georgia and turn the state blue in 2020. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: You heard President Biden’s remarks this week. And I just want to get straight to this. What was good, what was bad, and why didn’t you attend?

Nsé Ufot: What was good is a final acknowledgement and recognition about the urgency of this moment, a clarity that there is nothing more important to passing his domestic and foreign policy agenda, nothing more important than getting voting rights passed and expanding federal protections for voting rights, because ain’t nothing moving if we can’t secure and guarantee that the will of the people is reflected in the results of our elections. And I heard my president clearly articulate that. What was bad, I think was [the verbal slip] Ebenezer “Bastard” Church.

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Yeah, that was pretty terrible. I was like, I think it was such a solemn moment, people were not going to focus on that, but I was like, he just cussed. 

And we were listening. I was hanging on every word. I definitely heard Ebenezer “Bastard” Church. I also heard “President Harris,” but I’m not going to hold you.

You did not attend Biden’s speech this week at Morehouse [College]. Was that because you were busy? Did you have a schedule conflict? Or were you actively not attending in order to make a point?

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I have competing professional obligations that made it impossible for me to attend. Those competing professional obligations are the fact that Georgia Republicans have lost their damn minds, and are actively working to dismantle our elections infrastructure, that we are in the middle of a live and active threat. All of us make decisions. And I had to weigh the decision between the value of a photo op, and basically putting the pieces in play that are necessary to protect our elections and to protect our people and protect our work.

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I think that people don’t understand the kind of venom that continues to be fomented on the right. That there are not only elected officials in the federal government, but in state governments all over the country, that don’t believe that Joe Biden is the legitimate president. That believe that the election was stolen. That believe that we are in a crisis moment for American democracy, and they may have to take up arms to take the country back. That is happening right now. And it’s an academic discussion for a lot of people, an intellectual debate for a lot of people. This is our real life, our real lived experience.

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There are 159 counties in Georgia, which means there are 159 election kings and queens, right? Board of elections officials all over the state. Black county election officials, chiefs, are being unceremoniously, unilaterally dismissed all over the state of Georgia, right? Lincoln County in Georgia, one of the Black Belt counties, eight polling locations currently, they’re preparing to close seven of them. And the one that they’re leaving open, obviously, is on the white side of town where almost 40 percent of the voters in this county are Black. And they’re going to consolidate down to one polling location for the entire county, on the white side of town, because segregation is still alive.

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So there are organizers on the ground collecting signatures right now to block that from happening. The legislative session started on Monday in Georgia. They came out the gate. Not only did we pass Senate Bill 202 to make it more difficult for y’all to vote, but oh by the way, we’re going to get rid of drop boxes in 2022.

People do not understand that if we do not have urgent action, that not only could we see that impact play out in the midterms, we could not have a Congress seated by the end of the year. Because there are 19 states that have passed these anti-voting bills. They’ve been introduced in 48, but 19 states have passed them. And so if half of those 19 states are thrown into chaos, with the counting and the certification of their elections, we might not have a Congress by the end of the year.

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These threats are real and active. And if the president didn’t come with a plan, and when I, again, make choices about how I use my time as an organizer, there are 10 things that I could have been doing other than standing in the cold at Morehouse for six hours to hear our president say Ebenezer “Bastard” Church.

What were you guys asking the administration for before they came down, and have you heard anything from the Biden administration? It was several organizations that put together these asks.

So one, what we’re asking for is to get rid of the filibuster. I think that people don’t remember that this is sort of a new position. So he forcefully and vocally articulated that we need to get rid of the filibuster in his speech. So yay, congratulations. That actually represents movement. He was not there, and how had not been there for several months, despite the fact that we were talking about the filibuster as a racist tool that doesn’t have any real value, he was absolutely not there. And so that felt like progress, number one. Number two, we passed the For the People Act that passed, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

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People act like they don’t know what we’ve been asking for. People act like we have not been consistent this entire time. Pass the Voting Rights Act and set a floor for federal elections. This current version of the Republican Party, this current sort of Republican criminal caucus, that has decided to be the party of “no,” that nearly 200 of them refused to certify the Electoral College vote. Many of them are apologists for the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, where there was a failed murder plot to kill the vice president of the United States. And those folks are actively in office right now. So not now, but right now, we absolutely need to do something.

Our governor just signed into law these trash maps that are going to bind our hands for the next decade or more if we don’t pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. If we don’t figure out a way to prevent state legislators and bad actors from shoving these gerrymandered maps down our throats. So get rid of the filibuster, and communicate a plan for passage of the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

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