In his most significant remarks yet on the state of voting rights, as Congress faces a narrow path towards expanding access to the ballot, President Joe Biden condemned a wave of Republican-backed legislation fuelled by Donald Trump’s persistent lies about the 2020 election.
“The big lie is just that. A big lie,” he said in remarks from Philadelphia on 13 July.
“If you lose, you accept the results,” he said. “You don’t call facts fake and try to bring down the American experiment just because you’re unhappy. That’s not statesmanship. That’s selfishness.”
He warned about suppressive threats from GOP lawmakers, after dozens of similar bills were filed in nearly every state legislature as part of a coordinated campaign to strip access to mail-in ballots and early voting hours, as well as an effort to move oversight “from independent election administrators … to state legislators and partisan actors” in the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral loss.
“This is election subversion. It’s the most dangerous threat to voting,” he said. “It’s hard to declare how critical this is. It’s simply unconscionable.”
He urged Republican lawmakers to “stand up, for God’s sake”, adding, “have you no shame?”
Buoyed by the former president’s “stolen election” narrative under the guise of preserving “election integrity” and “voter confidence”, Republican leaders in at least 17 states have enacted at least 28 new laws that restrict access to the ballot, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
A parallel effort from GOP lawmakers has seen more than 200 bills in 41 states that give themselves more authority over the electoral process, according to the States United Democracy Center. At least 24 of those bills have been signed into law.
In a major test of what remains of the Voting Rights Act, the US Supreme Court has also upheld two Arizona laws that voting rights advocates argued have disproportionately hurt minority voters, the high court’s second decision in the last decade to undermine a portion of the landmark civil rights law.
The president delivered his remarks from the National Constitution Centre, a dramatic setting to underscore his forceful condemnation of laws that he has argued have attacked the centerpiece of American democracy.
“Some things in America should be simple and straightforward,” he said. “Perhaps the most important of those things, the most fundamental of those things, is the right to vote. The right to vote freely. The right to vote fairly. The right to have your vote count.”
The president traced the nation’s bloody legacy of voting rights and the violent disenfranchisement of Black voters and voters of colour – from white supremacist terror under Jim Crow to a civil rights movement echoed in demands for justice.
He urged Congress to pass two voting rights measures – The For The People Act, a sweeping measure that failed following Senate Democrats’ failure to overcome a Republican filibuster, and a restoration of the Voting Rights Act that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already vowed to block.
But the president has not rallied Democrats around amending Senate filibuster rules, despite his insistence that protecting and expanding voting remains remains a “test of our time” and a definitive battle for his term.
The US Department of Justice has expanded its civil rights office to scrutinise new elections laws, and the agency is suing the state of Georgia over its restrictive elections law, which Mr Biden called a “vicious anti-voting law”.
Mr Biden’s remarks followed the arrival of more than 50 Democrats from the Texas House of Representatives who have left the state to break quorum and block passage of similarly restrictive legislation sponsored by Republican Governor Greg Abbott.
That legislation would add new restrictions for those who assist others in casting ballots, a provision criticised by disability advocates, and ban “drive-thru” voting pioneered by Harris County – one of the largest counties in the nation.
It would also add restrictive ID requirements for mail-in voting and ban the distribution of mail-in ballot applications, increase penalties against election workers, and expand the authority of partisan poll watchers.
Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with the Texas delegation this week, according to the White House.
In his address from Philadelphia, the president repeatedly said that world democracies and Democratic leaders abroad are paying close attention to the voting rights battle in the US.
He said passage of the For The People Act is a “national imperative” and that he would “sign it and let the whole world see it” – should it get to his desk.
“The world is wondering,” he said. “What is America gonna do?”
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