Biden Confronts Georgia’s Voting Rights Issue, Defining Legislative Momentum

In News
Biden Voting Rights

Following a high-profile speech, President Joe Biden will travel to the state that White House officials regard as “ground zero” for Republican-led election suppression efforts. He warned that a dagger had been thrust into the heart of American democracy.

In Summary

• On Tuesday, the President will speak in Georgia. He is expected to elaborate on his affirmation for a filibuster carveout for the passage of voting rights legislation in his remarks.

• Senate Democrats are preparing to introduce legislation to debate and vote on changes to the chamber’s rules governing the advancement of voting rights and elections legislation.

• Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina) reacted strongly to Manchin’s assertion that Senate rule changes should be bipartisan. Carolyn Bourdeaux is pleading with President to prioritize the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

• Bourdeaux contended that advancing those bills through the Senate filibuster stage would require a full-throttle push from the President himself.

• In 2018, one-third of absentee ballots cast in the Georgia Democrat’s district were thrown out.

Biden Address to root for filibuster-carveout voting rights bill

Tuesday, the President will speak to a crowd in Georgia. He is expected to not only reiterate the tropes of his Jan. 6 address but also to advance on his affirmation of a filibuster carveout to expedite passage of voting rights legislation in the Senate.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ speeches and related meetings are part of the administration’s offensive against GOP efforts to restrict voting access and sow skepticism about America’s electoral system.

“We are doubling down, kicking it up a notch, and going straight to the heart of the beast, or ground zero, for voter suppression, voter subversion, & obstruction,” said Cedric Richmond, senior adviser to the President and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

Biden’s trip comes as Senate Democrats prepare to debate and vote on rule changes in the hope of advancing voting rights and elections legislation. According to aides, the President is expected to unequivocally support that effort in his speech, building on his interview during the holiday break. In addition, he endorsed a filibuster exemption for voting rights legislation.

“It’s really about the impending vote,” Richmond explained. “The Senate leader has made his intentions clear. We endorsed his plan and intended to use the White House to galvanize support.”

There are major obstacles ahead.

Despite the White House’s renewed push, significant roadblocks remain in the form of Senate Democrats who are unwilling to change the filibuster rules. According to Richmond, Biden continues to meet with lawmakers one-on-one and with the group of senators spearheading discussions about how to pass the voting and election reform bills. “He’s been canvassing for voting rights,” he added.

Biden’s visit to Atlanta comes amid calls from voting rights advocates and allies in Congress for him to be more assertive and consistent.

Biden Voting Rights
Voting rights advocate holding a placard

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) expressed hope that Biden and Harris would “speak emphatically about the need for filibuster reform” and have informed the White House of his desire. Johnson did not seek assurances from the White House but stated that he anticipates the President to be direct in his remarks about the need to modify the filibuster.

Johnson said Biden’s speech on the anniversary of Jan. 6 “failed to pull any punches.” “And I look forward to Biden doing the same on filibuster reform next week in Atlanta, being as direct, straightforward, and explicit as he spoke about the insurrection…and who was culpable for it.”

Biden began laying out a case of the serious need to save a democracy under attack by Trump and GOP allies as they spread lies about election fraud and attempt to install loyalists — some of whom have vowed to challenge future certifications — in key positions of power overseeing elections during his address at the Capitol this week.

Richmond depicted Biden’s Jan. 6 address as a “down payment” on the President’s ongoing case to convince the public that the country’s democratic foundations are under threat.

It is not the first time the President has urged Congress to pass similar legislation. Instead, last June, he visited Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre and vowed to “fight like hell” against voting restrictions passed by Republican-led state legislatures. He delivered a speech at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center a month later, declaring that “the twenty-first century Jim Crow assault is real.”

However, despite repeated attempts, the Senate has been unable to advance either the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — the first of which expand voting access and protects election officials, while the latter restores key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“Each time it doesn’t happen, we amplify it,” Richmond said of the push for Senate action.

As Biden’s other top priority — massive social spending and climate bill — has stalled, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) asserted that the legislative “vacuum” is quickly filled with voting rights.

“I don’t believe there was a Democrat in the country who desired the passage of Build Back Better more than I did,” Casey said. “However, voting rights must now take precedence over everything else we do.” I believe we discovered toward the end of the year that having two parallel tracks for two significant issues is extremely difficult. And there are times when you must prioritize and sequence.”

Casey characterized the next push for voting and election reform legislation as “as significant a body of work as any would ever undertake.”

With Democrats preparing to begin serious consideration of the bills, Senate Republicans led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed openness to amending the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which establishes the process for presidential election certification. Democrats, alongside the White House, deemed that narrower focus wholly inadequate and attempted to divert attention away from more comprehensive reforms. Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has stated that he will support some changes to Senate rules, but not the repeal or carveout of the legislative filibuster. Along with fellow centrist senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Manchin talks with a bipartisan group of senators about strengthening the Election Count Act.

White House confidant Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a third-ranking Democrat in the House, took offense with Manchin’s argument that changes to Senate rules should be bipartisan, stating that “we simply do not have enough Democrats who understand the history of this country, or they would stop saying some of this foolishness.”

Biden Voting Rights
Jim Rep Clyburn

“As you know, I am a Black person descended from people granted the right to vote by the United States Constitution’s 15th Amendment. “The 15th amendment was never a bipartisan vote; it was a one-party vote that granted Black people the right to vote,” Clyburn explained. “Manchin with others need to stop saying that because it causes me great pain when someone implies that the United States Constitution’s 15th Amendment is invalid because it lacks bipartisan support.”

When asked about the desire of some Democrats, such as Manchin and Sinema, to garner bipartisan support, Richmond stated that it would be unrealistic to expect Republicans to support the bills given their opposition to them thus far.

“All of these bills that have been passed in all of these Republican legislatures to restrict the right to vote, obstruct the right to vote, and subvert the vote have been done so on a partisan basis with Republican-only votes,” Richmond explained. “And thus, to believe that the same party committing these acts on a partisan basis would come to Congress and vote to protect us from them may be unrealistic.”

According to Manchin’s office, the senator supports voting rights. “Senator Manchin is a firm believer that every American citizen of legal age has the right and the obligation to vote, and that right must be protected by law. According to a spokesperson for Manchin, he is continuing to work on legislation to protect this right,” according to a spokesperson for Manchin.

For Georgia Democrats, the debate over electoral reform is particularly acute, as Republicans have ushered in a slew of changes in the state. The altered political landscape — twin Senate victories last year a day before the Capitol insurrection that resurrected Biden’s agenda — has increased the stakes.

Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.), who has been in contact with the White House in advance of the visit, said she anticipates the President to provide specifics on how he intends to proceed with the issue.

GOP back laws that curb absentees voting

“I think that by coming to Atlanta and the 5th Congressional District, I am occupying the seat formerly held by Congressman John Lewis,” Williams stated. “We are the cradle of the modern civil rights movement. You are not coming to Atlanta simply to deliver another speech. This is an action case.”

It could not come soon enough for her state’s Democrats. Notably, a 2021 Georgia law supported by the GOP then signed into law following Biden’s victory restricts absentee voting drop boxes to early voting sites, requires additional identification for absentee voting, and allows the state to take over county elections.

Now, Republican bills in Georgia are attempting to go even further, with proposals to eliminate touchscreen voting machines and expand voter fraud investigations, among other measures being offered for the upcoming legislative session.

Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.) noted that GOP-led changes to the voting rolls have significantly impacted her races. For example, in 2018, Gwinnett County, the suburban county northeast of Atlanta where her district is located, accounted for one-third of absentee ballots thrown out in the state. Bourdeaux brought litigation against the issues that eventually resulted in statewide legal challenges and made voter protection a central theme of her campaign.

Biden Voting Rights
Rep Carolyn Bourdeaux

When asked what she wants to hear from Biden on Tuesday, Bourdeaux said the President should commit to establishing a carveout in the filibuster to advance the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. And she contended that accomplishing that would require nothing less than a strong push from the President himself.

“The President still has a litany of levers. And I think he’s coming out strongly supporting that is a critical first step,” Bourdeaux said. “However, he is the one who will have to rely on the senators to break the filibuster in this fashion. So the first step is to commit to that action fully.”

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