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Why Marc Morial is ‘damn worried’ about the state of American democracy

‘The quest to protect the right to vote is going to be enduring’

Marc Morial of the National Urban League, center, speaks after a meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in July. Also pictured, from left, Melanie L. Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Marc Morial of the National Urban League, center, speaks after a meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in July. Also pictured, from left, Melanie L. Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)

The new infrastructure law and the larger budget reconciliation bill that are part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda have pushed the issue of voting rights out of the spotlight.

This comes after the Senate blocked debate on a bill named after the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, which would restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that have been struck down by the Supreme Court since 2013. Vice President Kamala Harris recently called the right to vote the cornerstone of our democracy. As states across the country enact restrictive voting laws, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has insisted that voting rights legislation is a priority, even if it means eliminating the filibuster. But it’s unclear whether there’s enough support for taking that step.

Now, civil rights groups have issued a scorecard that rates every senator on their records on voting rights and their willingness to end the filibuster.

One of the organizations behind the move is the National Urban League. CEO Marc Morial recently joined the Equal Time podcast to offer his take on voting rights, democracy and even infrastructure.

A transcript, edited for clarity and brevity, appears below.

Mary C. Curtis: I was very intrigued by the scorecard by civil rights groups. Were there any surprises?

Marc Morial: Civil rights groups came together as one to do this scorecard. Others have had scorecards in the past, notably the NAACP, and we decided that we needed to put transparency and focus on voting rights and democracy. We have focused this scorecard, at this time, on a single issue. And that issue is … democracy and the right to vote. Without the right to vote, we have no seat at the table. With no seat at the table, we can’t impact education, economic, foreign climate, budget, appropriations, policy with respect to children. We wanted to dramatize that American democracy is under the most vociferous, hostile, hateful and pernicious attack that we have seen in modern American history. That’s why we did this scorecard.

Curtis: Let me go into each piece of that. First of all, you talked about these voting restrictions that are being passed across the country.

Morial: The Freedom to Vote Act, which gives Congress the power, pursuant to the Constitution, to regulate the time, manner and place of federal elections. That onslaught can be thwarted by the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is based on the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, which prevents the denial of the right to vote on the account of race and gives Congress the power to enforce that preset by law. Those two bills would thwart … the racially and partisan gerrymandering of legislative and congressional seats we see taking place in the states.

Curtis: But there’s no sign that any of this will pass. We see that there’s been Republican resistance to even debating them.

Morial: It’s a shame, Mary, that Republican resistance. It’s a shame. And it’s going to be a scar on their record in the long, long arc of American history. Because historically, Republicans, many have joined with Democrats to pass voting rights, if you will, time and time again, since the 1960s. This is the first time that there is literally no Republican support — with the exception of Sen. [Lisa] Murkowski of Alaska. … This is a stain. I was part of the coalition that worked in 2005 — Ds, Rs, the George Bush administration — we had more than 90 votes in the United States Senate to extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many of those same U.S. senators that voted in favor of the Voting Rights Act in 2005 have now raised the flag of opposition to even debating the bill.

Curtis: You point out that it wasn’t a partisan issue. But let’s face it, as you said, there have been flip-flops. It’s become a partisan issue because it was a different moment then. What do you think this scorecard will achieve? For example, if a senator gets an F on his or her record on voting rights, do you think that senator will care that they received an F?

Morial: I don’t know. Our job is to let the world know and let the public know. Look, the National Rifle Association has a scorecard, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a scorecard. Many have scorecards. We have a unified civil rights scorecard. We will educate the voters, we will inform voters about the voting record of their member of the United States Senate. That’s our job.

Curtis: Now you talk about the filibuster. And I wonder, have you communicated with President Biden or this administration? Because the president seemed really reluctant to engage on the issue of voting rights and ending the filibuster, at least while he is prioritizing his economic agenda?

Morial:  It’s so clear that we’re near the end of the quest on the economic agenda. I think the president knows where we stand. But we’ve had more than one meeting with the president. He is clear on where we stand. The members of his administration know where we stand. The members of the United States Senate know where we stand. We’ve met with the president. We met with [Majority Leader] Charles Schumer, we met with [Sen.] Joe Manchin on two occasions, we met with 13 Republican members, and our staffs and constituency have met with dozens and dozens of United States senators. We’ve done our work. We’ve done our homework. We’ve done our spadework. We’ve said to Sen. Manchin and others, “Of course, it would be better to have a bipartisan bill.” But we’ve also said that bipartisanship is not in the American Constitution. And bipartisanship is a political method, not the only method. We have to have a bill. And 50 plus one senators, with a filibuster carve out is where it’s coming down to.

And I think, members of the Senate, you have to ask yourself: In history, do you want to say I defended the filibuster? Or do you want to say I defended democracy?

Curtis: Well, are you surprised that in 2021 African Americans, minorities, others still need to raise their voices? As you said, you marched. I have family members, older siblings, that marched for this issue. John Lewis, his name is on the act. And it’s still the same issue. So why?

Morial: I believe that the quest to protect democracy and the right to vote is going to be enduring, long-standing. And I see no reason to believe it’s going to be easily settled in the near future. We just have to have the tools we need to ensure that American democracy is protected. Look, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made this a more perfect union. It made this a better nation. It strengthened this nation. It was a difficult path to progress. The effort to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 began the moment the Plessy v. Ferguson decision was decided in 1896. So it was a long 60-year battle.

We should not have to have another 60-year battle. And American democracy, people must stand up for it, and we’re calling on members of the United States Senate to stand up. Demonstrate fortitude, demonstrate courage, and say, “I’ll stand up for the right of all people to vote, I will stand up to make sure that state law is not weaponized against the locked out and left out, not weaponized against those who are from communities of color, those who are indigenous or African American or Latinx, those who are young students, those who are disabled. We will stand up.” And that’s what we want.

We want the members of the Senate to stand up for American democracy. The House has done its job. They’ve done their job.

Curtis: I have to ask you, Marc, as someone who has been doing this and in the fight for such a long time, and you’ve seen this ebb and flow and the fight continue. How worried are you? I mean, we now have people who are denying the outcome of votes. And some of these laws in the states are throwing back the approval of votes to legislatures. How worried are you?

Morial: Damn worried. This is not anything to play with. What we saw on Jan. 6 was an effort at a totalitarian coup. What we saw on Jan. 6 is not anything I could have ever imagined occurring in this country. It was outrageous. It was pernicious. It made people around the world ask, “What has come of America? What has come of the citadel of American democracy?” Which is why the civil rights leadership of the country is putting it all out there. And we’ve always served as one of the consciences of this country. And I say, as one of the consciences of this country, we have to stand up for some principles and the right to participate, the right to choose your leaders, the right to vote is essential to who America is. I tell business leaders who sit on the sidelines, “You have no, quote unquote, free enterprise system without American democracy. It’s not the other way around. You have to stand up for the right to vote.”

Curtis: Not that long ago, when we were in the midst of the pandemic, you said that there were several pandemics facing Black America. You mentioned racial injustice in health care, jobs and social justice. I want to take your temperature on what the situation is today. How’re we doing?

Morial: There is still tremendous momentum to respond to and address the nation’s racial justice issues. There’s also a backlash you see manifesting itself in many places that I expected. But it does not affect the resolve of the so many who are working on institutional change. Institutional change in the business suites of America, institutional change in higher ed, institutional change in elementary, secondary education cannot be deterred. There’s going to be controversies, there’s going to be conflicts. The question still remains, “Is the George Floyd momentum sustainable over a period of years?” And I can’t answer that right now.

Curtis: So let’s turn to the bill that actually was passed, which was infrastructure. How big a deal was it for minority and African American citizens? And what are some of the specifics that you think are in there that will help and benefit.

Morial: Let me paint this picture. We’re now at 2021. We’re one-fifth of the way through the 21st century. So much of the fiscal focus of the nation in the last 20 years has been, No. 1, of overseas wars, where we’ve spent $8 trillion. No. 2, tax cuts heavily skewed to the wealthiest Americans. What this infrastructure plan represents to me is a shift in priorities.

This investment is long overdue. And the president rightfully recast it as a 21st-century measure by, No. 1, including broadband, by, No. 2, including investments in water systems, by, No. 3, putting ample dollars in for public transit. The president recast this away from what you traditionally would have, which is basically, “Let’s just pave some roads and build some bridges.” And that gets done with this bill. But also airports. I ran into the chair of the Amtrak board, and it was exciting in that the rail systems of America — including the opportunity for new rail projects — will get the largest investment in 50 years. This is a forward-leaning infrastructure bill. Now, we have work to do to ensure that Black America and other communities of color have a chance to get the jobs, to participate in the business opportunities and also have an opportunity to participate in the element of it that is about renewable and climate change, so that we’re not creating a climate divide, like the digital divide.

Curtis: There are still some other provisions that are in the Build Back Better [reconciliation] bill, but there’s a lot of resistance to it. Why do you think there is? And what are some key provisions?

Morial: I think the Democrats are going through this learning process about how to govern. Governing is a combination of vision and practicality, vision and aspiration, and pragmatics. And this notion of factionalism within the Democratic Party around this is a bit new. The Democrats have to demonstrate in the House and in the Senate that we can resolve our differences quickly and effectively.

Remember, this is a budget bill. There’ll be one next year. So you do what you can. You include the provisions you can. You work through it, you fight through it, you pass it, and then you work to implement it. And then you come back next year to try to fill in the gaps and build more consensus around things that for some reason you didn’t get in the bill. This is a moment for combination of vision and practical politics, not posturing. And operating as though this is the only bill, if something’s not in here, there’s no other chance to pass it.

The president was rightfully ambitious. When you’re ambitious, when you’re visionary, sometimes everybody’s not going to be there. And when you’re operating on a tight margin, particularly in the Senate, and you’ve got to get all those egos, all those personalities, all those priorities together, not to mention a narrow margin in the United States House, where you have in the Democratic Caucus people from urban communities, you have people who are from rural and from suburban communities. The Democratic Caucus represents a broad swath of America. The challenge for the Democrats is with the power to govern on a narrow margin. You have to work amongst yourselves because, clearly, with some exceptions, you’re not going to get Republican support. The Republicans passed their tax cuts. The Democrats have got to demonstrate the ability to pass this plan, which has already been cut significantly.

But what I also say is, look, the families of America, the working men and women of America, they’ve been locked out and left out for a long time. These provisions, these initiatives, these proposals — expanding Medicaid, more money for housing, investments in child care — and you could talk about many of these things. This is what people voted for in the 2020 election, a change in priorities away from Trumpism and tea party neglect, where you don’t invest in anything but tax cuts and in the military. And you leave everything else, if you will, to chance. This is where we are.

Curtis: Why do you think that there is such a holdback on Build Back Better, particularly with all these provisions in them?

Morial: This is a classic tug-of-war about what should be in the package. And because the margins are so narrow, any one member of the Senate can raise their hand and say, “I object to this.” Any handful of members of the House can say, “I object to this.” Or they could say, “I’ve got to have this.” So a dose of political reality here: That empowers everyone on the margin. … These folks who are jockeying and negotiating have never had to work together like this before. You}ve got a bunch of new members of the House. You’ve got narrow margins in the Senate and some new members of the Senate. I’d say to the Democratic members, “You have to learn how to govern. Governing is different than playing the opposition. You have to learn to work and compromise and remember that you’re all in the same boat. And if the boat hits the waterfall, there’ll be no survivors.”

Curtis: I just did also want to ask, with the midterms coming up, you could see so many of these voting regulations and restrictions and redistricting, gerrymandering. [Republicans] are passing them with an eye toward taking over control of the House and Senate. So what does it mean for democracy?

Morial: GOP strategy: Let’s just suppress the vote. If we suppress the vote, we have low turnout [in the] midterms. History shows we have a better chance.

Look, it’s as clear as day, it’s as plain as a crystal-clear moonlight. I can see this from a mile or 100 miles, 1,000 miles away. There’s no secret in this battle and what it is about and the tactics that are being used.

Curtis: Thank you, Mark Morial, for coming on and talking about the scorecard, what voting rights means for democracy, and what both the Senate and the American people should do next, in your opinion.

Morial: Thank you, Mary. Thank you for having me. Be strong, be blessed. And we’ll do it again.

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