‘We must see action’: Voting rights groups applaud Biden’s support for filibuster reform but stress urgency

After months of nationwide protests, activists push Biden to support changes to Senate rules – but states are running out of time against GOP obstruction

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 11 January 2022 23:12
Schumer borrows Republican chart to defend voting right legislation

In one of the most consequential speeches of his presidency, Joe Biden forcefully made the case for filibuster reform – and argued that little else matters if Congress fails to advance federal legislation to protect voting rights.

His message follows months of organising, protests, hunger strikes, a revival of civil rights-era Freedom Rides and demands from activists that the president use his bully pulpit to convince Democratic holdouts in the Senate – like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema – to support changes to Senate rules that have allowed Republicans to obstruct his voting rights agenda.

Many of those advocates did not attend the president’s remarks in Georgia on 11 January – they called it an “empty gesture” without a concrete action on securing passage of voting rights legislation, and without commitments that the filibuster be dissolved.

Stacey Abrams, among the most-prominent voting rights advocates in the US and a Democratic candidate for Georgia governor, also did not attend, citing a scheduling conflict, though she welcomed the president to the state.

“There’s no sense in having 40 years of Senate experience only to tell us that you can’t whip two votes,” Black Voters Matter co-founder Cliff Albright told CNN on Tuesday.

For voting rights advocates, the president’s message brought some relief, as GOP legislators in nearly every state prepare for another year of sweeping attempts to restrict voter turnout and assume unprecedented power over election administration, including how votes are counted.

But they are demanding action.

Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy, applauded the president’s support for “making needed changes to the outdated and dysfunctional Senate rules to ensure we can pass critical legislation to protect each American’s voice and right to vote”.

“Now, we want to see President Biden put the full power of the presidency behind those words: we must see action,” she said.

Voting rights advocates Martin Luther King Jr III and Arndrea King met with the president to stress that his visit “cannot be a mere formality”.

“We also support the Georgia groups who have decided not to attend the president’s speech today – they are frustrated after a year of inaction and we are too,” Mr King Jr said in a statement. “We’re in communication with them and stand in solidarity to ensure voting rights get done.”

Filibuster rules in a Senate evenly divided on party lines require 60 Senators to move legislation into debate and consideration.

Senate Republicans spent Tuesday condemning any attempts to amend the filibuster, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accusing Democrats of trying to “silence” millions of Americans they represent.

“If my colleague tries to break the Senate to silence those millions of Americans, we will make their voices heard in this chamber in ways that are more inconvenient for the majority and this White House than what anybody has seen in living memory,” he said on Tuesday.

“Our colleagues who are itching for a procedural nuclear winter have not even begun to contemplate how it would look,” he said.

Congressional Republicans have characterised federal legislation on voting rights – including the Freedom To Vote Act and a restoration of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, to be named after late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis – as a “federal takeover” of elections, and, as Senator Ted Cruz has called it, “a power grab to enable a power grab”.

Meanwhile, their elected counterparts in state legislatures have launched a partisan campaign to restrict ballot access and change the rules of election administration that would grant them greater control over the electoral process.

Last year, Republican state lawmakers passed at least 32 new laws in 17 states to change how elections are run, including efforts to strip oversight from election officials and put it into the hands of GOP-dominated state legislatures.

GOP legislators filed at least 262 such bills in 41 states in 2021 alone, and more are expected as legislative sessions resume in 2022, according to States United Democracy Center.

A parallel effort saw the passage of at least 24 laws in 19 states restricting ballot access, after GOP legislators filed more than 440 bills in 49 states last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

More than a dozen bills restricting ballot access have been pre-filed ahead of 2022 legislative sessions in four states, and at least 88 bills in nine states will carry over from 2021 sessions.

The president pointed out that such legislation can pass with simple majority votes, while minority representation in the US Senate can block consideration of majority legislation.

“They want chaos to reign. We want the people to rule,” the president said in his remarks from Georgia. “Jim Crow 2.0 is about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion. It’s no longer about who gets to vote. It’s about making it harder to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote, and whether your vote counts at all.”

The Freedom to Vote Act proposes nationwide standards for early and mail-in voting, safeguards against partisan gerrymandering, automatic voter registration, and the creation of Election Day as a public holiday, among other measures.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore elements of the law tossed out by the US Supreme Court, including requirements that jurisdictions with histories of discrimination have federal “pre-clearance” before proposed changes go into effect. It also includes the Native American Voting Rights Act, which addresses voter suppression issues and other barriers to voting among Indigenous communities.

Senate Republicans invoked a filibuster four times to block voting rights legislation in 2021.

Mr Biden did not name Senators Manchin and Sinema in his remarks. White House press secretary Jen Psaki also did not address them by name during a briefing before the president’s speech.

Instead, he asked “fundamentally, to people in the Senate – Democrats, Republican and independents: Where do you want to be in history?” Ms Psaki told reporters.

“Where do you want to be when the history books are written? And this is a key moment where you will be judged,” she said. “Are you for protecting people’s fundamental rights or not?”

Mr Schumer said the Senate could take up voting rights “as soon as tomorrow”. He has pledged to bring filibuster changes to the floor on or before 17 January, Martin Luther King Jr Day.

Angus King, an Independent senator from Maine who supports filibuster reform, said on Tuesday that “the vote taken this week is the most important vote that I will ever take in my life, not because of any issue but because of the structure of democracy itself.”

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