Biden has aggressively protected voting rights, but experts warn it's not enough

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Voting rights advocates hope the Biden administration’s lawsuit accusing Texas of trying to minimize the voting power of nonwhite residents signals a willingness to confront Republican-led plans that they say would make voting harder for Black and Latino Americans.

But some national security experts, including a former top White House homeland security adviser, said they fear the Biden administration is fundamentally misjudging how widespread and insidious voter suppression and election fraud efforts are.

Olivia Troye, former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, said activists aligned with former President Donald Trump are not only trying to make it harder for nonwhite Americans to vote, they are also infiltrating traditionally nonpartisan local election offices to tip the scales in their favor in a country where hundreds of votes in a single county could alter a presidential election.

“I am probably even more concerned today than I was even last fall. While we may have defeated Trump, the extremism of Trumpism hasn’t been defeated. It’s grown, it’s grown and become emboldened. All of this is concerning on so many levels,” Troye said.

A Trump supporter holds up a noose at the "Stop the Steal" rally outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when hundreds of rioters stormed into the building. Election experts worry the riot was a warning of what's to come if the country cannot agree on basic facts such as who won an election.
A Trump supporter holds up a noose at the "Stop the Steal" rally outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when hundreds of rioters stormed into the building. Election experts worry the riot was a warning of what's to come if the country cannot agree on basic facts such as who won an election.

'Rigging the system'

Troye quit the White House in August 2020 over the administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Troye, a lifelong Republican, said she's worried the Biden administration is distracted by the pandemic, the rapid rise in inflation and other issues, and not focusing enough on the sweeping assault on voting rights and access.

“What we’re seeing here is an unprecedented attack on our democracy and efforts to destabilize our democracy," she said. "You’re basically rigging the system so that the next time, you can override the will of the people. It’s relentless. And it’s not fading."

At least 19 states this year enacted laws making it harder for Americans to vote, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Twenty-five states expanded voting access, the Brennan Center said but noted the states that clamped down already had restrictive laws, and the ones expanding access already had relatively more expansive rules.

In March, the nonprofit Freedom House said the United States backslid in the group's annual ranking of freedoms around the world, dropping to the level of Panama, Romania and Croatia, and well behind the United Kingdom, Chile and Costa Rica. The Economist newspaper rated the United States as a "flawed" democracy this year, citing deep dysfunction in government, loss of social cohesion and an inability to agree on basic facts.

Armed men stand on the steps of the state Capitol after a rally in support of President Donald Trump on Jan. 6 in Lansing, Mich. Experts warn of increased violence and reduced access to voting by people of color as pro-Trump activists push the "Big Lie" that he is the rightful president.
Armed men stand on the steps of the state Capitol after a rally in support of President Donald Trump on Jan. 6 in Lansing, Mich. Experts warn of increased violence and reduced access to voting by people of color as pro-Trump activists push the "Big Lie" that he is the rightful president.

The Biden administration filed a lawsuit last week against Texas over the boundaries of its legislative districts. In a series of speeches and the lawsuit itself, top Justice Department officials laid out their case against Texas' redistricting plan, which liberal groups criticized as an attempt to dilute the voting power of nonwhite Texans.

Texas is due to gain two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives because of population gain. Although the growth has come almost entirely from nonwhite residents, "Texas has designed both of those new seats to have white voting majorities," U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. "These redistricting plans will diminish the opportunities for Latino and Black voters in Texas to elect their preferred representatives. And that is prohibited by federal law.”

Texas tightened mail-in ballot rules this fall and limited the availability of ballot drop boxes and drive-thru voting. State officials said the measures would help reduce fraud, but experts pointed out that there's been no significant voting fraud and that the changes are primarily designed to make it harder for nonwhite voters to cast ballots.

Filibuster halting voting rights law

Until 2013, nine states – mostly in the South – were required to get federal approval to change their voting rules, because they had a history of discriminating against minority voters. The Supreme Court overturned that rule, allowing Texas, Arizona and Georgia, among other states, to make changes without prior approval, known as "preclearance."

Ezra D. Rosenberg of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said he's pleased to see how seriously the president and his staff take protecting voting rights. He noted the Biden administration filed three Voting Rights Act lawsuits in its first year, against Texas, Georgia and West Monroe, Louisiana. In comparison, the Obama administration filed five in eight years. The Trump administration filed only one during its four years, against a South Dakota school district.

"The level of activity has been very high, judged against historical standards," he said.

Other voting rights advocates worry the Justice Department is forced to play "whack-a-mole" in fighting changes in Texas, Georgia and other states. In Georgia, the Republican-led Legislature reduced the election authority of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who refused Trump's request to "find" enough votes for him to win the state last year.

“Now we watch as all the things we knew would happen are beginning to happen," said Rashad Robinson, executive director of the racial justice group Color of Change. "The people who are in the Justice Department are some of the best on the county. These are folks who I know take this work very seriously, who look at this issue with deep integrity and focus. The problem is, you don’t want to just deal with how to create consequences. You want to prevent this from happening in the first place.”

Like other voting access advocates, Robinson wants Congress to pass a national voting rights law. Although the House passed a measure, it won't pass the Senate unless Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., abolishes the filibuster. Under Senate rules, the bill needs 60 senators to approve it, rather than the simple majority Democrats hold.

Is Freedom to Vote Act enough?

The "Freedom to Vote Act" would make Election Day a federal holiday, set out national standards for mail-in and early voting and ensure people could register to vote on Election Day.

"What we’re seeing in the South are very concerning signs. Redistricting without preclearance in place is rife with abuses, even at the local level," said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project. "It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment. We need bold, concrete actions to happen before it's too late. It’s a very, very, critical moment. These are perilous times for our democracy.”

Matt Masterson, a former election security adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, said the situation is more perilous than many Americans understand. Masterson is co-author of a paper titled "Zero Trust: How to Secure American Elections When the Losers Won’t Accept They Lost."

Masterson said Trump supporters have scared many elections workers into quitting, then tried to step into the power vacuum. In September, ProPublica reported a wave of Trump-aligned activists signing up to run elections after former Trump strategist Steve Bannon called for supporters to seize control of local party offices.

“We're seeing it across the entire country and in virtually every state," Masterson said. "Worst-case scenario, you’re having political actors pursuing these positions. They’re interested in pursuing their political goals rather than serving the voters and serving American democracy.”

Voters emerge from Sabathani Community Center after casting their ballots during elections Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Minneapolis.
Voters emerge from Sabathani Community Center after casting their ballots during elections Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Minneapolis.

Troye, the former counterterrorism expert, said voting rights groups place too much trust in the courts and law enforcement to protect civil rights. She said police and military service members see the same conspiracy theories that other Americans do, and conservative-leaning police officers and soldiers may be more willing to side with Trump and his allies because they've repeated election lies so often.

On Jan. 6, armed Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, trying to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden's Electoral College victory in the presidential election. Activists said they hoped to scare Congress into declaring Trump the winner, and they threatened to hang elected officials who refused, including Pence. Dozens of protesters had served in the military or law enforcement, and some were in active service at the time.

“What happens when you get to a point when law enforcement, when military are joining these groups, and they are the traditional defenders of democracy?" Troye asked. “When you erode all of these levels, it’s eroding every fiber that’s holding democracy together."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's work on voting rights may not be enough as redistricting looms