Pundits depicted it as a textbook example of their favorite story line, “Democrats in Disarray.” But the tension between Georgia voting rights groups and Joe Biden’s administration over the president’s belated trip to Atlanta on January 11 to tout federal voting rights legislation was a case study in the synergy of an inside/outside political strategy. Though the bills ultimately failed, Democratic leaders’ decision to force a vote represents progress nonetheless.
The move by four prominent Georgia 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—to skip the visit by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris threatened to overshadow their trip to Atlanta. And while Georgia voting rights titan Stacey Abrams, running again for governor this year, endorsed the Biden-Harris visit, she also skipped it, citing a “scheduling conflict.”
The mainstream media pounced. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough told his viewers that it meant Abrams “obviously doesn’t want to be on the same stage as Joe Biden.” Politico headlined its “Playbook” newsletter that morning: “Biden Gets a Rude Welcome to Georgia.”
I took the story seriously myself—because I actually know the excellent work of the groups who stayed away from the event, from covering Abrams’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign and the Senate runoffs won by Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. I’d venture that most of the reporters using, say, New Georgia Project director Nsé Ufot to bludgeon Biden couldn’t spell her name before this. And few got the complexity of her message.
“I feel like ‘boycott’ is a little strong for what’s happening today,” she told me when I called her. “We’re not telling people not to go. What we’re doing is sustaining the demand for swift action on voting rights. We’re asking, ‘What is the path for passing voting rights?’ Period.” Instead of attending the Biden-Harris event, Ufot spent the day organizing in Lincoln County, where election officials are trying to close seven of the eight polling stations. “It’s 30 percent Black, and the lone polling place is on the white side of town,” she added.
Whether or not the pressure worked, Biden gave his most fiery speech on voting rights, ever. For the first time publicly, he thoroughly denounced the Senate’s filibuster rules. “Today I’m making it clear, to protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules—whichever way they need to be changed—to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.” And while he didn’t mention by name the two Democratic senators who resist changing those rules, he subtly shamed West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema nonetheless. “Every senator—Democrat, Republican, and independent—will have to declare where they stand,” he said, adding later: “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? The side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? The side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?” Ouch.
Biden also made clear he wanted to see a Senate floor vote on the bills. Immediately after the speech, Abrams sent out a statement praising it. A few minutes later came a statement from all of the groups who’d decried the visit, along with the Abrams-founded Fair Fight Action Fund (which did not), likewise praising the speech. It was remarkable cooperation by Abrams and her allies.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer used an arcane congressional move to force debate on the bills (normally a GOP filibuster could block not only passage but even debate). Still, the bills failed to get the 60 votes needed to pass under current Senate rules, and any possible changes to those rules failed as well, thanks to Manchin and Sinema. Nevertheless, the votes themselves are progress. Georgia activists put themselves on record dissenting from Biden’s 2020 voting rights strategy. Biden forced the Republicans (and two Democrats) to go on record saying voting rights don’t matter—or, in the case of Manchin and Sinema, matter less than preserving the filibuster. Now the Democratic base, threatened by GOP voter suppression and election subversion laws in red states, knows where it stands.