Democrats Vow to Redouble Voting Push: ‘Today Is the Starter Pistol’

Even as the party’s sweeping elections bill was blocked in the Senate, Democrats and civil rights groups reaffirmed their resolve to fight for voting protections in Congress.

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For many Democrats and voting rights groups, the failure to advance the party’s major elections bill on Tuesday felt like the arrival of the inevitable, the final thud of a tree crashing in the woods after wavering for months. And everyone heard it.

Unable to halt the relentless push by Republican state legislatures to pass a host of voting restrictions, many Democrats had rested their hopes on a long-shot bid to enact a federal voting law that would undo much of the G.O.P. legislation and expand access to voting for millions around the country.

But on Tuesday, as it became increasingly clear that passing federal voting legislation would be a steep challenge, Democrats, civil rights groups and voting rights organizations reaffirmed their resolve to fight in Congress for voting protections.

“The pathway is Congress must do their job,” said Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P. “When the Voting Rights Act was adopted in 1965, people thought it was a long shot. It’s our jobs as civil rights organizations to make possible what other people think is impossible. We continue to push forward.”

Though the bill, known as the For the People Act, struggled to garner universal support among Democratic senators, it had been perhaps the ultimate overarching objective for Democrats who have been beaten badly in state legislatures for much of the past two decades, allowing Republicans to draw gerrymandered state legislative districts to hold onto power and move nearly unimpeded in their recent quest to pass new voting laws.

Some voting rights groups expressed frustration with initial Democratic efforts, arguing that even though the issue was nominally the party’s top legislative goal — as evidenced by its H.R. 1 and S. 1 marking in Congress — it has not been treated with the requisite urgency. Yet they also hoped that the failed vote on Tuesday would vividly demonstrate the gravity of the situation.

“I have yet to see Democrats act like this is the No. 1 priority on their agenda, and I suspect that we will start to see that after today,” said Nse Ufot, the chief executive of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a voting rights group. “Today is the starter pistol. Today marks the beginning of the escalation.”

The blockade of the Democratic legislation in Congress came on the same day that Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas called a special session of the state’s Legislature, as Republicans there resumed their attempt to pass an expansive bill of voting restrictions.

Democratic state lawmakers in Texas — one of the few major battleground states led by Republicans in which the party has not yet passed a new voting bill — pledged to keep up their efforts on the ground to stymie the bill, but said that help from Congress would be essential.

“We’re without a doubt holding the line in Texas,” said State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat who helped organize the dramatic late-night walkout to stall the previous G.O.P. voting bill last month. “We’re using every tool at our disposal, and we’ll continue to do so.”

But he added, “It is very clear that the best approach and the best policy is to have a national standard for voting.”

Mr. Martinez Fischer said the next voting bill in Texas, which Republicans are likely to pass, would remind Americans of the scale of voter restrictions being enacted at the state level.

Republicans in other states are also moving forward with new voting legislation. On Tuesday, Wisconsin Republicans passed a bill — certain to be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat — that would make absentee voting more difficult, especially for disabled and older people, and would prohibit local election clerks from completing missing information like addresses on the envelopes of absentee ballots.

The Republican legislation would also forbid ballot collection events more than two weeks before an election, which would end events like the “Democracy in the Park” festivities conducted last year by 1,000 poll workers in Madison, the bastion of Wisconsin Democrats.

Absent the federal law, Democrats and voting rights groups have sought to fight new voting restrictions in both the courts and through traditional campaign tactics.

Democrats have put forward many legal challenges to the new Republican voting limits, with active lawsuits in Georgia, Florida, Montana, Iowa, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Arizona and Kansas, and more cases likely to be announced.

The Battle Over Voting Rights

After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and change how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.

A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become central issues in American politics. As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most likely face steep legal challenges.Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.Texas: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. S.B. 7 included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting.Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.

The party is also investing more money in expansive efforts in political organizing and voter education, hoping to overcome the likely confusion and suppressive effects that the new voting laws could have in elections in 2021 and 2022.

Priorities USA, one of the largest liberal super PACs in the country, pledged on Tuesday to spend a minimum of $20 million on voting initiatives, including a large digital campaign that will target voters affected by new legislation and help them navigate the laws.

And Democrats are looking to use the energy and attention on voting rights this year to help expand their reach in other ways. In Texas this month, the state Democratic Party announced a major $13 million voter registration effort, the largest in party history, with a goal of registering up to two million new Democratic voters.

Ms. Ufot said her organization was about to embark on the recruitment of civil rights lawyers in Georgia who could help build a protective force for voters and local election officials, who face a greater threat of penalties under part of Georgia’s new voting law.

But passing a federal voting law, no matter the odds, is still the top priority for Democrats and voting rights groups — not just for future elections, but also for the looming redistricting process.

“Time is of the essence. Redistricting starts in just a few weeks, meaning the gerrymandering is starting in two weeks,” said Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank. He added that simply failing to pass a procedural vote did not signal the end of a federal voting law, but instead simply showed what it would take to pass it.

“This is the first collision of this major piece of reform legislation within the Senate,” Mr. Waldman said. “And it isn’t over today.”

Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.

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