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Joe Biden’s Commitment to Defending and Expanding Voting Rights Is Murky at Best

Almost all of the major Democratic candidates have released comprehensive platforms to restore and expand voting rights. Joe Biden has not.

Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event on Monday in Dallas, Texas. (Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)

Joe Biden won the South Carolina primary and hopes to have revitalized his campaign. As we move to Super Tuesday and beyond, the media must push him on a subject far too many have ignored: voting rights.

In a political climate plagued by voter suppression and extreme partisan gerrymandering, it is imperative that every Democratic presidential candidate pledge to pursue policies that strengthen our democracy. If the past decade has revealed anything, combatting right-wing politics requires fair elections and diverse voter turnout. Many Democrats have risen to the challenge. Almost all of the remaining major candidates have released comprehensive democracy platforms. Their plans, though varying in strength, include concrete policies to end gerrymandering and empower voters.

Joe Biden, however, stands alone. Though he has provided a detailed campaign finance reform plan — which, encouragingly, includes public financing of elections — his website is scandalously vague on the topic of the franchise.

The most pertinent section reads:

We must strengthen our democracy by guaranteeing that every American’s vote is protected. We’ve got to make it easier — not harder — for Americans to exercise their right to vote, regardless of their zip code or the color of their skin, and make sure we count every voter’s voice equally.

But apart from a declaration that he wants to empower the Department of Justice to enforce voting laws and restore the Voting Rights Act — which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 — there are no specifics to explain how he intends to turn this mission statement into reality. Merely reinstating the Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” provision is woefully insufficient, for it would not undo the damage that has been wrought since 2013.

To his credit, in an op-ed in December 2019, Biden promised to make voter protection a “foundation” of his presidency. As part of that commitment, he promoted his intent to pursue laws that “make it easier for people to exercise their rights.” During the presidential debate in New Hampshire, he reiterated that ending voter suppression would be an “enormous priority” if elected and that he supports automatic voter registration — though his explanation of the policy was muddled.  

Even so, these statements remain far too vague. The political stakes of inaction are too high to just trust that he will eventually support a pro-democracy agenda. The question must now be asked: If voter suppression is “simply wrong,” as Biden articulated at the same debate, where is his plan to fix it?

Any worthwhile plan would include federal oversight of congressional elections. This means not just a mandate of automatic voter registration, but also one ensuring same-day voter registration and pre-registration for sixteen and seventeen year olds. So too should there be commitments to limiting aggressive voter purges, mitigating the discriminatory effects of voter ID laws, and ending felon disenfranchisement — though only Bernie Sanders has thus far been courageous enough to advocate for a complete abolition of this racist practice. And until the Fair Representation Act becomes politically salient, any plan must also express support for mandatory independent redistricting commissions to end partisan congressional gerrymandering.

It is unclear where the former vice president stands on the vast majority of these policies. Though he signed Eric Holder’s pledge to support fair electoral maps, committing “to fair redistricting where elected officials are accountable to those they represent,” from a policy perspective, as with Biden’s other statements on the topic, this reveals little.

Biden’s commitment to protecting the franchise is likely sincere. But in the contemporary political environment, vagueness and platitudes no longer cut it. Until he releases specifics, the Left should make sure everyone knows that this election’s leading centrist candidate fails democracy’s test.