Following the passage of sweeping ballot restrictions and the arrest of a Black lawmaker in Georgia, President Joe Biden has urged members of Congress to pass the For The People Act, a massive voting rights bill to combat a wave of suppressive legislation across the US.
He called Georgia’s bill, signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp on Thursday, as well as dozens of other similar bills in at least 43 states, a “blatant attack on the Constitution and good conscience”.
“This is Jim Crow in the 21st Century,” the president said in a White House statement on Friday. “It must end. We have a moral and Constitutional obligation to act. I once again urge Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to make it easier for all eligible Americans access the ballot box and prevent attacks on the sacred right to vote.”
He said he intends to “take my case to the American people – including Republicans who joined the broadest coalition of voters ever in this past election to put country before party”.
“If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide,” he said. “Let the people vote.”
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As he left the White House on Friday afternoon, the president called the Georgia measure an “atrocity” that is “nothing but punitive”.
The For The People Act aims to standardise voting access in every state and territory, eliminate long-standing barriers to voting and allow candidates with smaller platforms to wield more political power, among other provisions.
But it faces a murky path in the US Senate, despite aggressive support from Democratic lawmakers and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has repeatedly said that “failure is not an option” when it comes to voting rights.
Under current Senate rules, the bill needs at least 10 GOP senators to join Democrats to clear the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for legislation.
Mr Biden’s statements follow the arrest of Democratic Rep Park Cannon, a Georgia legislator arrested and forcibly removed from the state Capitol on Thursday after knocking on the governor’s door as he announced his signature on the bill.
The White House is “deeply concerned by the actions that were taken by law enforcement” during her arrest, press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday.
After her release from jail on Thursday night, Ms Cannon has vowed to combat voter suppression, as an outpouring of support and outrage across the US followed her arrest.
“I will not stand by while our voting rights are threatened across this state, the state I swore an oath to represent with integrity, honesty, and respect for the millions of people who live and work in this community,” the Democratic representative said in a statement on Friday hours after her release from a Fulton County jail.
Widely shared videos of her arrest show Ms Cannon, who is Black, handcuffed with her arms behind her back, as she repeatedly asks police why she is being arrested and tells them that she is a member of the state legislature.
The GOP-backed legislation transfers election oversight from election officials and into the hands of Republican lawmakers, reduces the number of places where people can vote, and makes it a criminal offence to provide food and water to people waiting in voting lines, among other provisions that disproportionately target Black voters.
Georgia is not alone – GOP lawmakers across the US have proposed tightening restrictions on ballot access, from strict voter ID laws to eliminating early voting periods and absentee voting, proposals fuelled by the false narratives of widespread voter fraud and “irregularities” in 2020 elections promoted by former president Donald Trump.
Mr Kemp announced on Thursday that “there’s no doubt there were many alarming issues with how the election was handled, and those problems led to a crisis of confidence in the ballot box here in Georgia,” despite several audits and hand counts of Georgia’s election results finding no evidence of widespread fraud or other issues that impacted the outcomes or conditions of elections.
State election officials across the US, including in Georgia, as well as the Justice Department and FBI have all reported no evidence of significant election fraud, and most bills offered up by Republicans – such as cutting down on early voting hours and limiting locations to turn in ballots – do not appear to do anything to combat it.
Ms Cannon faces one charge of obstructing law enforcement officers by use of threats or violence and a second charge of disrupting a general assembly session or other meeting of members.
Georgia’s state constitution provides that lawmakers “shall be free from arrest during sessions of the General Assembly” except for treason, felony or breach of the peace.
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