What might have been a rousing national kickoff not only of a 2022 federal voting rights push but also the campaigns to elect Stacey Abrams Georgia governor and reelect Senator Raphael Warnock has turned out to be anything but that. Days after blasting President Joe Biden for insufficient urgency on passing some kind of voting rights bill, a coalition of crucial Georgia voting groups—the Black Voters Matter Fund, the Asian American Advocacy Fund, the New Georgia Project Action Fund, and the GALEO Impact Action Fund, which organizes Latinos—announced that its leaders would not attend his Atlanta events with Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday. Abrams herself endorsed the visit, but said she would miss it because of a “scheduling conflict.”
In hindsight, the falling-out was a long time coming. In an otherwise laudable voting rights speech last July, Biden offended some activists by calling on them to assemble “a new coalition” behind voting rights “to raise the urgency of this moment.” As I wrote at the time: “Respectfully, Mr. President, a vibrant coalition exists right now; it elected you, and a Democratic Senate, and it feels an enormous amount of urgency.”
In their letter to Biden, the groups wrote: “Georgia voters made history and made their voices heard, overcoming obstacles, threats, and suppressive laws to deliver the White House and the US Senate. In return, a visit has been forced on them, requiring them to accept political platitudes and repetitious, bland promises.”
I asked Nsé Ufot, director of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, about the phrase “forced on them.” Had any of the groups behind the letter been contacted by the Biden administration before the visit was announced? “Not that I’m aware of,” she answered. But she rejected my use of the term “boycott” with respect to Tuesday’s split.
“I feel like ‘boycott’ is a little strong for what’s happening today,” she said. “We’re not telling people not to go. What we’re doing is sustaining the demand for swift action on voting rights. We’ve been asking for urgent action for a year. We’re asking ‘What is the path for passing voting rights?’ Period.”
While some Democrats on Twitter have framed the groups’ decision “as critical, even hostile” to Biden and Harris, Ufot said, she thinks it just reflects different priorities. “An extraordinary amount of activism is required even to hold the line here. Yesterday was the first day of Georgia’s legislative session: They led with getting rid of drop boxes [for absentee votes].” Ufot herself will be working Tuesday on organizing in Lincoln County, where election officials are trying to close seven of eight polling locations. “It’s 30 percent black, and the lone polling place is on the white side of town,” she added, underscoring the ongoing and escalating risk to Georgia’s Black voters.
Other group leaders haven’t sounded as conciliatory as Ufot. “It was very clear this was not a priority for [Biden],” LaTosha Brown, cofounder of Black Voters Matter Fund, told MSNBC’s Joy Reid Monday night. “The way he talked about infrastructure is not the way he talked about voting rights. This speaks to the frustration of groups on the ground. We have less voter protection now than we did a year ago.” Reid pushed back gently, noting that Biden can’t pass voting rights bills, almost unanimously opposed by Republicans, unless Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema change their stance on altering the filibuster.
Atlanta Representative Bee Nguyen, who is running to be secretary of state in November, feels caught in the middle. “I am planning on attending,” she told me. But her sister, Phi, is executive director of the AAAF’s education and advocacy arm, Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
“I feel I have to be there, but I don’t want to see these groups thrown under the bus,” Nguyen says. Working on the ground, the voting rights organizers are hearing the frustration of Georgia Democrats who delivered the White House and the Senate majority “because they wanted to see federal voting rights legislation.” Nguyen is particularly frustrated with the media conversation, which is tending to portray the groups’ decision as a destructive rebuke to the Biden administration. Social media attacks by some mainstream Democrats have been particularly sharp.
“How are we in a place where folks are attacking Nsé and LaTosha?” she asks.
Mainstream media organizations have indeed played up the split. Politico’s Playbook headlined Tuesday’s post “Biden gets a rude welcome to Georgia.” And, without any evidence I’m aware of, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough told viewers this morning that Stacey Abrams “obviously doesn’t want to be on the same stage as Joe Biden.” (I was unable to reach the Abrams campaign for comment by deadline.)
But movements and even sympathetic elected officials often part ways over tough issues. In early 1965, President Lyndon Johnson implored the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not to push for voting rights legislation when he was focused on launching his war on poverty. King went to Selma—where the late John Lewis was already ahead of him—and joined the voting rights push anyway. Five months after Bloody Sunday, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. “With every major movement, there are different tactics outside [government] and inside,” Nguyen said.
Group leaders who won’t be attending the Biden and Harris speeches will respond in an Instagram live event at 7:30 Tuesday evening.