Promising to “forcefully advocate” for voting rights, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris came to Atlanta Tuesday (Jan. 11), making the strongest pitch of their tenure to move the bills forward.
"It's also time to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. I've been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months,” Biden said in an address given at the Atlanta University Center, after he and Harris visited Ebenezer Baptist Church and laying a wreath at the crypt of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife Coretta Scott King ahead of the King federal holiday on Monday. “I'm tired of being quiet."
The president’s speech didn’t announce any new executive action, but he firmly laid the case for the need to enact laws to protect the right to vote. Biden told his audience Republicans across the nation are erecting obstacles to vote because "to them, too many people voting in a democracy is a problem."
But Biden also made clear that he is behind changing Senate rules to pass the bills that will protect voting rights. Although he did not call for complete, permanent elimination of the filibuster, which is simply talking out a bill long enough to delay or prevent a vote, which takes 60 votes to override, but said an exception could be made in a case like this.
“I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote,” he said. “Let the majority prevail. And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules including getting rid of the filibuster for this."
Repeating, “Let’s go get this done!” Biden urged lawmakers to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which would establish national election standards, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would reinstate a core provision of the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 that required states with a history of racial discrimination to seek Justice Department approval before changing their election rules.
A number of voting rights groups and advocates, including candidate for GA governor, Stacey Abrams, were notably absent from the president and vice-president’s events. While Abrams cited “scheduling conflicts,” a number of leaders said while they wouldn’t attend today’s events, they would instead be registering voters, and doing other work to advance the voting rights cause.
The Boston Globe reports that some of the on-the-ground workers thought the president shouldn’t come to Georgia until his administration can deliver a legislative voting rights win. Fallon McClure, an organizing director for the Working Families Party, told The Globe “Georgia showed up and saved the country. Promises were made and they haven’t been kept. He doesn’t need to be talking to us. He needs to be talking to the holdouts and getting these things passed.”
Still, Holli Holliday, President of Sisters Lead, Sisters Vote told BET, she thinks this visit is important because this is just one part of a larger campaign. “Today’s speech is the current step, not the first or last, that this administration has taken to advance voting rights.” Holliday continued “Our community needs to not be misled into believing the people who are criticizing the Democrats, while letting Republicans off the hook.”
Last fall, the John Lewis bill failed in the Senate, leaving Democratic lawmakers frustrated over how they will get it passed. "Just because Republicans will not join us doesn't mean Democrats will stop fighting. This is too important. We will continue to fight for voting rights and find an alternative path forward, even if it means going it alone," Sen. Chuck Schumer said at the time, according to The Hill.
Presidential spokeswoman Jen Psaki defended the president’s record on voting advocacy saying "I think we would dispute the notion that the president hasn’t been active or vocal. He’s given a range of speeches, he’s advocated for voting rights to pass," she said. "We understand the frustration by many advocates that this is not passed into law yet. He would love to have signed this into law himself."
But Black activists say they’ve seen this before. Head of the national NAACP, Derrick Johnson tweeted that he wants voting rights protections and nothing less.
Once a stronghold GOP state, Georgia has turned into a battleground state with the largely Black population taking legislative control in places for the first time since Reconstruction. And other states have taken notice.
According to the progressive Brennan Center for Justice, at least 19 states passed 34 law last year that added restrictions to voting procedures.
RELATED: Senate GOP Rejection of John Lewis Voting Rights Act Leaves Democratic Lawmakers Infuriated
The Brennan Center has identified 88 restrictive bills across nine states that carry into the 2022 session. As of December 7, 2021, the center identifies four states in which at least 13 bills that add restrictions were filed ahead of legislative sessions.