Biden calls for legislative action on voting rights

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In the nine months since Republicans in Georgia imposed a slew of new voting restrictions, 18 other states have enacted 33 such laws. More than 30 states have concluded their redistricting processes, with extreme partisan gerrymandering locking in Republican control over legislatures in the electoral battlegrounds of Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas for another 10 years. .

On Tuesday, President Biden urged Democrats to change Senate rules to pave the way — now blocked by the threat of a Republican filibuster — for federal legislation that would undo some of the most egregious new voting restrictions and curb gerrymandering. hyperpartisan.

Calm persuasion, Mr. Biden said, is no longer an option for an election law that Democrats have been debating among themselves for nearly a year.

“I’ve had these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the past two months,” the president said in Atlanta on Tuesday. “I’m tired of being silent!”

To that end, Mr Biden has called for an end to the 60-vote threshold for suffrage bills, a measure he opposed during his campaign and resisted for most of the first year of his presidency.

While Mr. Biden waited, however, voting laws were changed in many states, and some degree of voter suppression may have become all but assured.

Confusion over changing election laws, access, locations and times could cause some citizens to miss their opportunities to vote, experts say. Tougher penalties for voters and election officials could deter people from voting for fear of prosecution for an honest mistake.

And newly adopted district maps that significantly benefit one party — like those in Texas and Ohio, where Republican lawmakers have nearly secured legislative majorities for a decade, regardless of which party wins contests in the contest. statewide – could also discourage citizens from voting.

“Damage has been done, and it’s unclear how much of that damage we can repair,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a voting rights group. He said his organization heard from Georgia voters struggling with the state’s new rules during last year’s municipal elections.

The two bills Democrats are focusing on — the Voting Freedom Act and the John Lewis Advancing Voting Rights Act — would reverse some of the most onerous restrictions passed by state legislatures in 2021 setting minimum requirements for early voting and what forms of ID are accepted at polling stations and facilitating the voter registration process.

The Free Vote Act would also make partisan gerrymandering illegal, giving the Justice Department and outside groups more legal tools with which to challenge politically lopsided maps.

Notably, the bills would expand voting access in majority Democratic states, such as New York and Delaware, which have very limited early voting provisions, and help curb Democratic gerrymanders in states like Illinois. and Maryland.

But with the primary season for the midterm elections beginning March 1 in Texas, the window to pass any federal voting legislation is shrinking — heightening frustrations among activists who looked to the White House for action, or at least for more muscular declarations of support and urgency, throughout 2021.

“Unless President Biden applies the same level of urgency to voting rights as he did to BBB and infrastructure, America may soon be unrecognizable,” President Derrick Johnson said Tuesday. of the NAACP, in a statement, citing the blocking of Mr. Biden. Better invoice. “As President Biden delivered a moving speech today, it’s time for this administration to walk the talk and for Congress to do its job.”

Republicans who oppose the Democratic ballot effort have warned in stern terms against tampering with the filibuster rule. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said it would “break the Senate.” And Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, who signed the Elections Act that Mr. Biden spent much of his speech condemning — cutting drop boxes, adding ID requirements and stripping the secretary’s office. of State of Georgia certain powers over elections, among other provisions – called the Democratic push on the right to vote an “attack on electoral integrity”.

Writing on Twitter on Tuesday, Mr Kemp said Mr Biden had attacked Georgia’s law in “an effort to distract from their many failures and rally their base around a federal election takeover”.

Mr. Biden has always faced a long chance of winning a substantial legislative victory over voting rights. Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, among others, oppose weakening the filibuster rule, warning of possible Republican retaliation if the GOP wins a majority in the Senate and arguing that legislation without a bipartisan agreement would further divide the country.

And the 50-50 split in the Senate means Democrats can’t change the rules without the consent of every member of their caucus.

For its part, the White House insists it did what it could, issuing an executive order in March calling on federal agencies to study and possibly expand access to voter registration materials. The Justice Department more than doubled the size of its Civil Rights Division, the arm that handles voting rights litigation, and sued Georgia and Texas over their new election laws and maps. of district passed by the Texas Legislature.

Yet frustrated suffrage activists argue that had Mr Biden devoted more energy to the issue, publicly and forcefully advocating the legislation, he could have pressured recalcitrant Democrats to accept change. filibuster for this purpose.

“The administration had over 300 meetings to get the infrastructure bill done,” said Julián Castro, the former housing secretary who ran against Mr. Biden for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. “They didn’t use the same muscle or the same effort for the right to vote, and that’s a mistake.”

Instead, the lack of direct engagement by Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, whom he has tasked with advancing suffrage legislation at his behest, has infuriated many activists and leaders in the civil rights.

Last summer, dozens of Democratic lawmakers in Texas tried to rally the White House and Congress for action on voting rights. When Republicans in Austin decided to pass new restrictions, Democrats delayed things by fleeing to Washington. While the group met with Ms. Harris and some senators, they never received an audience with Mr. Biden, and attention to their cause waned after a few days.

“We definitely wish this work had been the main focus of the White House last year,” said Gina Hinojosa, one of the Texas state officials who organized the flight to Washington.

Voting rights groups also point to a long-awaited but grossly unsatisfactory conference call with Ms. Harris and her team in November.

Representatives from more than 40 organizations joined the call at 4 p.m. Ms Harris did not come online until 5:01 p.m., according to several participants, and then left after speaking for six minutes and answering no questions.

Both the White House and an event organizer said Tuesday that the vice president joined and left the call on time and was never asked to answer questions.

Aside from Mr. Biden’s newfound eagerness to address voting rights, the prospects for Democrats to advance either bill remain bleak.

Mr. Biden’s strategy so far has been to buy time for suffrage legislation by winning victories on his other major legislative agendas. He privately assured suffrage advocates that Democratic resisters would eventually relent in the face of continued Republican obstruction. Senate Democrats also opted to give Mr. Manchin time to try to recruit Republican votes, to no avail.

Mr. Manchin shows no signs of moving. He indicated on Tuesday that he did not intend to vote to change the filibuster rule to allow passage of a voting rights bill – even one he helped to negotiate.

“Voting is very important. It is a foundation of democracy,” he told reporters in Washington. “But breaking up the opportunity for the minority to fully participate is just not who we are.”

Mr. Biden, himself a 36-year veteran of the Senate, acknowledged the uncertain road ahead.

“I was pretty good at working with senators,” he said. “But man, when you have 51 presidents, it gets harder.”

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