(CNN)This week, voting right activists Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown will board a 53-foot bus and kick off a tour through the South. Their task: Rally public support for federal legislation to combat the raft of new state laws aimed at restricting voting rights.
They face big obstacles. Among them: Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist who is a key vote in a 50-50 Senate and has opposed a sweeping voting rights bill, in its current form, that the Senate is slated to consider this month. He also has resisted changing Senate rules to allow Democrats to pass legislation by a simple majority, a position that could doom another measure that would restore some voter protections first enshrined in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But hard jobs are the specialty of these two friends who co-founded Black Voters Matter Fund five years ago to increase political power in African American communities.
In 2017, they mobilized voters in Alabama to help Doug Jones become the first Democrat elected to the US Senate in that deep-red state in a quarter century. And in 2020, they were among the Georgia-based activists who helped turn the state blue and elect Joe Biden to the presidency.
They helped repeat that feat this year with the runoffs wins of Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia, giving the party a slim majority in the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris empowered to break tie votes on some measures. Black turnout in the special election surged, helping drive the Democratic victories.
The duo have paid a high price for their activism, however. They’ve faced threats to their safety on the road and back at home in the Atlanta area. On January 5, the day Ossoff and Warnock won their elections, Brown got a call from the FBI, she said, warning her to stay alert for suspicious activity.
She said she soon learned the organization’s name was on a list of potential targets devised by a far-right group. So instead of celebrating the Democratic takeover of Washington, Brown and Albright fled their homes — spending the days following the special election in temporary housing.
“Normally, after you secure a victory, there’s some reprieve,” Brown told CNN in a recent interview. “But we got punished for being successful.”
Still, Brown and Albright say that little could deter them from their latest campaign to confront the glut of new laws in Republican-controlled states that limit ballot access.
“What other choice do I have?” Brown asked. “We’re seeing these attacks because we are gaining ground, not because we are losing. This isn’t the moment to get dejected and pull back. We have to keep our eyes on the prize.”
At least 22 new laws restricting voting had been enacted in 14 states as of May 14 — beating a record of 19 such laws in 2011, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. They range from provisions that make absentee voting harder to those that empower partisan poll watchers.
Black Voters Matters’ latest mobilization campaign, dubbed the Freedom Ride for Voting Rights, starts Saturday on Juneteenth — the holiday commemorating the day in 1865 that enslaved residents of Galveston, Texas, learned of their emancipation.
The nine-city tour comes 60 years after the original Freedom Rides through the South, the bus trips that Black and White activists took together to protest the bus terminals that remained stubbornly segregated despite a 1960 Supreme Court ruling deeming the practice unconstitutional.
The Black Voters Matter tour is part of a broad effort by voting rights groups and Democrats to fight the new restrictions — with lawsuits, pressure campaigns on lawmakers and voter registration drives aimed at flooding competitive states with new voters likely to back Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.
The Texas Democratic Party, for instance, is spending $1.7 million this year on a pilot project that aims to register 2 million likely Democratic voters in the Lone Star State before the 2022 elections, said Luke Warford, the state party’s chief strategy officer.
Nationally, the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee this week said it would spend $10 million on new voter protection programs in Senate battlegrounds.
Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, recently launched an advocacy campaign called “Hot Call Summer” to rally young voters of col
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