At MLK alma mater, Biden pitches Senate rule change to safeguard voting rights
President Joe Biden called for an end to the Senate filibuster during a visit to Atlanta’s Morehouse College campus, arguing Senate Democrats can push past GOP opposition now blocking major voting rights legislation.
The visit by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to Atlanta was the latest sign of Georgia’ central role as a battleground state for voting rights that ratcheted up following the 2020 elections after Democratic wins for president and Senate that helped flip control of Congress and the White House.
With the likelihood of Republican Georgia lawmakers pursuing more restrictive voting rules after last year’s sweeping overhaul legislation, not implementing meaningful federal protections sooner rather than later is a threat to Democracy, Biden said before a crowd gathered on the grounds of the Atlanta University Center, home to historically Black colleges Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse, and Spelman College.
“While the denial of fair elections is not democratic, it is not unprecedented,” Biden said. “Black Americans were denied full citizenship voting rights until 1965. Women were denied the right to vote just 100 years ago.
“The United States Supreme Court in recent years has weakened the Voting Rights Act,” Biden added. “Now, the defeated former president and his supporters use the big lie on the 2020 elections to fuel torment and anti-voting laws.
“I think the threat to our democracy is so great that we must find a way to pass this voting rights bill,” Biden said. “Debate them, vote, 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.”
The president’s remarks are his most explicit endorsement of Senate Democrats using their newfound power to change filibuster rules that require 60 votes rather than a simple majority to advance and pass legislation. The Senate is split 50-50, with the vice president able to break ties.
Republicans and at least a few Democrats oppose the controversial political play. In a chamber split along political lines, Democrats would need all of their senators to back them.
Harris said it’s time to fight back against Senate Republicans who are using procedural rules to bottle up bills that would ensure free and fair elections for years to come.
“Let us be clear, the Constitution of the United States gives the Congress the power to pass legislation and nowhere does the Constitution give the minority the right to unilaterally block legislation,” Harris said. “The American people have waited long enough. The Senate must act.”
Using the filibuster to advance voting rights bills faces an uphill battle from within the Democratic Party, with Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia standing firm that changing the rule should be bipartisan. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has said she’s not in favor of making any rule revisions to push through voting legislation, although she supports access to the ballot.
The Freedom to Vote Act is one of the two major voting bills that Democrats are pushing to get passed this year. It would make Election Day a national holiday and set minimum election standards, including same-day voter registration and mandatory early voting that lasts two weeks.
The other signature voting legislation is the John Lewis Voting Rights and Advancement Act, which would strengthen the Voting Rights Act by requiring all 50 states to receive permission from the Justice Department before changing voting laws.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat, expects a push for a debate on voting rights legislation in the Senate any day.
The speeches by the president and vice president Tuesday were greeted with sharp criticism by the Georgia Republican Party and top GOP state officials who said it was a Democratic attempt to undermine elections. Prior to the visit, multiple civil rights voter advocacy organizations criticized what they said was a long overdue call to action from the Biden administration.
Following the 2020 presidential election Georgia lawmakers overhauled the state’s election law, Democrats and progressive groups charged Republicans disenfranchised Black and other minority voters, as well as people with disabilities, resulting in multiple lawsuits attempting to reverse Georgia’s new election law.
Several major civil rights leaders were on hand at Morehouse Tuesday, including the Rev. Al Sharpton but noticeably missing from the visit was voting rights advocate and Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, who said she had a scheduling conflict. Abrams issued a statement cheering their visit to Georgia and saying she spoke with Biden by phone earlier in the day.
“To protect our democracy, I ask all Democratic Senators and Republicans of good conscience to support restoring the Senate via a rule change that will pave the way for swift Senate passage and President Biden’s signature,” Abrams said in the statement.
Black Voters Matter and New Georgia Project and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials are among the groups critical of the Biden administration for failing to capitalize on the momentum gained with the historic presidential and U.S. Senate election wins in the state.
Over the last year the Biden administration didn’t take a hard line against members of Congress standing in the way of voting rights, said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter.
“Those of us on the ground have been very vocal on this issue,” she said on Monday. “At this point, we’re beyond speeches, we’re beyond events. What we are demanding is that there is federal legislation that will actually correct some of the wrongs that are taking place. We’re not willing to continue to feel the brunt of this attack that’s on us.”
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr defended Georgia’s election law changes Tuesday afternoon while calling out Harris and Biden for attempting to force their “radical agenda on hardworking Georgians.”
“Georgia is ground zero for the Biden-Harris assault on election integrity as well as attempts to federalize everything from how hardworking Georgians run their businesses, to what our kids are taught in school, to how we run elections,” Kemp said.
Republican lawmakers say the state’s 2021 voting law strengthens elections with new absentee ID requirements, reduces lines at polling places, while expanding voting options through additional early voting hours compared to pre-pandemic rules.
More election legislation is up for consideration in this year’s Georgia Legislature, including a controversial proposal to eliminate absentee drop boxes.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger also held a press conference Tuesday to criticize the Biden administration for attempting to change a longstanding Senate rule to push a “partisan agenda.”
“Make no mistake; this is an attempt to weaken election security under the guise of voting rights,” Raffensperger said while speaking at the state Capitol.
During their visit to Atlanta, Biden and Harris also met with the King family as they participated in a wreath laying at the crypt of the slain civil rights icon and his late wife, Coretta Scott King. Monday is the national holiday celebrating King’s life.
Biden implored legislators to follow King’s lead.
“I ask every elected official in America, how do you want to be remembered?” Biden asked. “Consequential moments in history present a choice. Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to know the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?”
The Georgia Recorder’s Ross Williams contributed to this report.