The Biggest Thing Kamala Harris Could Do This Year

An illustration shows Vice President Kamala Harris surrounded by red and blue triangles.
Mandel Ngan / Getty / The Atlantic

The battle to protect voting rights needs a field general. Vice President Kamala Harris needs a cause to define her tenure. The second problem suggests the answer to the first: President Joe Biden could designate Harris as the administration’s point person in combatting the onslaught against voter access now advancing in Republican-controlled states.

Both Biden and Harris are speaking more explicitly now than they have in the past about that threat; each delivered forceful statements last weekend on the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when Alabama state troopers brutally attacked protesters marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. Even though they welcomed the pointed comments, civil-rights advocates I spoke with almost uniformly agree that most Americans remain unaware of the magnitude of the assault on voting rights, an outgrowth of former President Donald Trump’s discredited claims of massive fraud in the 2020 election.

That’s spurring preliminary talk in civil-rights circles about organizing a modern Selma—a contemporary protest comparable to the iconic 1965 march, which provided crucial momentum for the passage of the original Voting Rights Act that year, one prominent national civil-rights leader told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “We’re witnessing the greatest rollback of voting rights since the birth of Jim Crow,” the leader said. “Plans are already under discussion for a potential march in D.C. or Atlanta to highlight the outrage about these state-based attacks on American democracy.”

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Civil-rights leaders and democracy-reform advocates are also hoping that the Biden administration will do more to highlight the suppression measures moving forward in states such as Iowa, Arizona, Florida, Texas, New Hampshire, Montana, and, above all, Georgia. There, the GOP-dominated legislature is advancing bills to repeal automatic voter registration and on-demand absentee balloting and to restrict early voting on Sundays that Black churches use for “Souls to the Polls” events. “This is a crisis for democracy … and one thing the White House still has the ability to do is train public attention, even in this fractured media environment,” Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice and a chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, told me.

Advocates want more attention on the state laws to discourage Republican legislators and governors from passing them. But they also recognize that, as in the Selma era, greater awareness of state restrictions could build support for national action—and particularly for H.R. 1, the sweeping democracy-reform bill the House passed earlier this month. More public awareness, the theory goes, will raise Senate Democrats’ comfort level about establishing a nationwide standard for voting rights through their own version of H.R. 1, even if that requires curtailing the filibuster to overcome lockstep Republican opposition. In an appearance on MSNBC this week, Marc Elias, the Democratic Party’s lead election lawyer, literally pleaded for more attention: “I am begging America and the media to pay attention to this. Right now, we are facing an avalanche of voter suppression” that the country hasn’t seen in decades.

Waldman said that one key reason the attack on voting rights hasn’t captured public attention is that it’s so far confined inside statehouses. “What’s going on in Georgia is naked voter suppression, but by legislation; it’s not billy clubs and dogs,” he said. “During the civil-rights movement, when there was physical violence at people marching for the right to vote, that galvanized the conscience of the country. It’s harder to do that when it’s legislation.”

That same argument applies to a more recent example. The state-level bills are all rooted in Trump’s voter-fraud claims that ignited the January 6 attack on the Capitol. But state legislators in suits changing laws don’t inspire nearly as visceral a public reaction as rioters in combat gear—even if the former’s impact on American democracy is more lasting than the latter’s.

Biden carries the White House’s biggest megaphone, and he has long experience with these issues—he often touts the work he did with Senate Republicans to reauthorize the original VRA. But some advocates fear that his focus on promoting bipartisanship and staying above the partisan fray is already discouraging the White House from spotlighting the state-level threat.

It’s unclear whether Merrick Garland, the newly confirmed attorney general, could lead the resistance to the GOP offensive either. Garland’s overriding message is that he will depoliticize the Justice Department after former Attorney General William Barr functioned largely as Trump’s personal lawyer and legal consigliere. Two other people who could lead the fight are the civil-rights veterans Biden has nominated to top Justice Department positions: Vanita Gupta, the former president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, as associate attorney general and Kristen Clarke, the former president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, as head of the department’s civil-rights division. Both have been in the trenches in recent clashes over voting rights, but neither would be visible enough to truly command public attention (and both are busy fighting Republican efforts to block their confirmations).

Given these competing considerations, Kamala Harris stands out to many advocates I’ve spoken with as the best choice to elevate this struggle. For starters, she appears to have room on her plate. Recent presidents have generally allowed their vice president to take the lead on a specific policy portfolio: Al Gore with reinventing government and climate change; Dick Cheney with national security; Biden with implementing the 2009 stimulus plan and foreign policy, particularly regarding Iraq; Mike Pence, at the end of his tenure, with the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force. But Biden has spoken of Harris as a more general adviser. And while her aides (perhaps with an eye on 2024) are stressing her role in foreign policy, she hasn’t yet become identified with any particular cause or responsibility.

Voting rights could be a strong contender to fill that gap. She’s talked powerfully about how she personally benefited from the civil-rights movement. And in the Bloody Sunday anniversary video she recently released, she effectively linked the current wave of state voter-suppression proposals to the confrontations during the ’60s. “Today,” she said, “poll taxes have been traded for long voting lines; property-ownership restrictions for purges of voter rolls; literacy tests for voter ID, voter-registration restrictions, mail-in-voting limitations, cuts to early voting, precinct closures, gerrymandering—it’s all voter suppression by any other name.”

The administration and civil-rights groups don’t have much time to generate more national attention. Republican Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa has already signed legislation limiting early voting and reducing the hours that polls can stay open on Election Day. Bills in other states are swiftly moving forward. Elias says Democratic lawyers’ success in beating Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the election may be making Democrats complacent about their ability to block these new restrictions if they are approved. “We will do the best we can in court,” he told me, “but I almost worry that people look at the success that some of us had last cycle” and expect the same success now. “I am here to tell you that we can’t assume the courts are going to solve every political ill.”

In Georgia, where some of the most sweeping state-level restrictions are advancing, the crucial decisions on what reaches the desk of GOP Governor Brian Kemp will come this month, says Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, a voter-mobilization and -registration group founded by Stacey Abrams.

So far, Abrams and her allies have mostly played an inside game in trying to stop the restrictions. They are pressuring Georgia’s powerful corporate community—including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Home Depot, and Disney (which films much of its Marvel franchise in the state)—to speak out more explicitly against the bills; so far, almost all of the state’s leading companies have stuck to anodyne and vague statements generically defending the right to vote.

“They have some of the most powerful lobbyists in the Georgia legislature. I have to believe they could have killed this [effort] in its infancy if they were serious about protecting the freedom to vote in our state,” Ufot told me. Many of these same companies, she noted, promoted voting during the 2020 campaign; gave their employees the day off on Juneteenth, “because they discovered that’s a thing”; and tweeted out “their favorite Martin Luther King quotes throughout Black History Month ... They have a very clear analysis about the importance of Black history, but when Black futures are under attack, they are silent. And their silence is deafening.”

Like Ufot, Elias said that business leaders should be much more visible than they have been so far. “I don’t think we can say that this is only the job of the president and vice president,” he said. “I think it is the job of the corporate CEOs; I think it is the job of athletes (and I’m proud to see the athletic community step forward); I think it’s the job of influential people in society.” He said corporate America is failing to match the standard it set when many companies publicly opposed the so-called bathroom bills in North Carolina and beyond. (In 2016, the NCAA and NBA, for instance, withdrew high-profile events scheduled to occur in the basketball-mad state to protest the legislation.) If companies took similarly decisive action on voting access now, Elias said, “it would be incredibly influential in many of the state legislatures.”

In the weeks and months to come, the fight over voting rights will unfold on at least four fronts. There’s the wave of laws from state-level Republicans to limit access to the ballot—more than 253 proposals in 43 states, at the Brennan Center’s last count. Then there are the courts: Eight years after the conservative Supreme Court majority eviscerated the original VRA’s keystone “preclearance” standard, Republicans are now pushing the justices to decimate the law’s central remaining provision, which allows after-the-fact legal challenges to voting laws with discriminatory impact. The Justice Department represents a third front: Republicans and conservative groups are mounting a sustained effort to block the confirmation of Gupta and Clarke.

And looming over all of these skirmishes is the question of whether Senate Democrats can pass their equivalent of H.R. 1, which would require states to offer early voting, on-demand absentee balloting, and automatic, same-day, and online voter registration. (It would also combat gerrymandering by requiring states to use independent commissions when drawing congressional districts; the commissions would operate under strict criteria to promote partisan and racial equity in redistricting.) The fate of that bill, and a new VRA that the House is planning to pass later this year, will turn on whether Senate Democrats are willing to restrict the filibusters that Republicans are highly likely to deploy against both measures.

Although voting-rights advocates often invoke Selma and the ’60s to describe today’s raging battles, some historians say the proper comparison is actually the end of Reconstruction, when southern white people revoked—typically using horrific violence—the voting rights that formerly enslaved people had obtained in the first years following emancipation. Waldman also sees similarities beyond America’s borders: What’s unfolding in states such as Georgia, where Republicans are responding to electoral defeat by openly trying to restrict the vote, is akin to what authoritarian political parties have done in countries such as Turkey, Poland, and Hungary. “The power structure changes the rules to close off democracy,” Waldman said. This GOP offensive may not remain confined to red states: Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida has already introduced legislation that would cement several major restrictions into national law—in effect imposing red-state rules on blue states—and Trump, in his recent CPAC speech, suggested a national ban on early and mail-in voting.

As I’ve written before, it’s no exaggeration to say that these overlapping struggles represent a genuine crossroads for American democracy. And a fight this momentous demands a high-profile leader. Harris, since the election, has lacked a signature public focus. She couldn’t find one more urgent, consequential, or deeply connected to her own story than the generational struggle over voting rights that is now raging through the states.