President Joe Biden kicked off the inaugural White House “Summit for Democracy” on Thursday by sounding alarms about challenges to democracy around the globe as authoritarian governments gain ground.
But advocates say much more work is needed at home to shore up America’s democracy, nearly a year after a violent attack on the US Capitol aimed at halting the certification of Biden’s victory. In the months since, 19 Republican-controlled states have passed a raft of new laws that restrict access to the ballot, election officials have faced relentless threats of physical violence and former President Donald Trump and his allies have continued to stoke distrust in the election system.
Election officials also are lobbying to secure the federal funding they say is needed to administer future elections.
“We’ve been watching a slow-motion insurrection taking place in front of our eyes for the past 11 months, and President Biden doesn’t seem fully aware of what this county is up against,” said Cliff Albright, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter.
“You can’t sell something globally that you can’t even protect at home,” he said.
Albright this week joined a protest outside the United Nations headquarters in New York as he and other activists sought to seize the spotlight trained on the global summit to pressure the White House on voting rights legislation.
In remarks to more than 100 global leaders, Biden alluded to the shortcomings at home. “Here in the United States, we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort,” the President said.
And he promised action on two bills, now blocked by Senate Republicans, aimed at countering new voting restrictions at the state level and restoring key elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But voting rights advocates question Biden’s decision to first advance his $1.9 trillion spending plan, known as Build Back Better, before working to alter Senate rules to force the voting measures through the narrowly divided chamber. The President has viewed enacting his domestic spending plans, aimed at delivering tangible benefits to millions of Americans, as a way to protect democracy by demonstrating that government can work for people.
Democracy advocates argue Biden could have tackled both — advancing voting bills alongside his spending agenda. The election measures “didn’t have to be the only priority, but they had to be a top priority,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, an election reform group. “It’s pretty clear that this wasn’t — and still isn’t — a top priority.”
Some election officials, meanwhile, also are focused on what they view as another threat: a looming financial crunch.
This week, a cluster of state and local election officials joined an online push to lobby White House and Congress, as they seek $20 billion over 10 years to help shore up the nation’s election infrastructure. US elections are administered locally, and federal funding often comes in unpredictable spurts — usually in response to a crisis.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who joined the virtual lobbying effort, said she told federal officials this week that without a sustained and reliable stream of money, “we can’t run elections.”
“That sense of urgency is something that we’ve repeatedly not seen coming from our federal government on many election issues,” the Michigan Democrat told CNN. “This is one that delay or wavering has dire consequences for our democracy, our simple ability to run elections.”
Last year, many cash-strapped election officials relied on private money during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
One nonprofit, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, distributed more than $340 million to nearly 2,500 elections offices in 49 states. The money helped underwrite an array of expenses, including hazard pay for poll workers and purchasing additional tabulators to tally the flood of absentee ballots voters used last year.
But Republican legislatures in roughly a dozen states have now banned private election funding, citing concerns about partisan bias. The center’s grant-making had been funded largely by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.
(Center for Tech and Civic Life officials have denied any political bias, saying any election office that applied for a grant last year received one.)
Election officials say they still need additional funds to help replace and maintain election equipment, upgrade software, hire poll workers and confront an emerging issue: security threats to the people who run elections day-to-day.
Just this week, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat repeatedly targeted with threatening messages, requested a $200,000 appropriation from state legislators to boost security for her and her staff.
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