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Voting rights groups worry Biden’s Ga. speech comes too late

Joe Biden

President Joe Biden in recent days has singled out the protection of voting rights in the U.S. as a top priority for action, and he’s heading to Georgia with the vice president to help cement that point. But some civil rights activists, uninterested in another speech, don’t want to hear it.

Biden on Tuesday will pay tribute to civil rights battles past — visiting Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once held forth from the pulpit, and placing a wreath at the crypt of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. His speech isn’t expected to contain any announcement of new executive action. Instead, aides say, he’ll use the presidential megaphone to speak out about voting rights and concerns about American democracy.

“The president will forcefully advocate for protecting the most bedrock American right, the right to vote and have your voice counted in a free and fair and secure election that is not tainted by partisan manipulation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

It’s not enough for some voting rights advocates, who are boycotting the speech and instead spending the day working. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams also is skipping the event; aides said she had a conflict but didn’t explain further.

“We’re beyond speeches. At this point, what we need, what we are demanding, is federal legislation,” said LaTosha Brown of Black Votes Matter. And it can’t happen soon enough, she said.

Activist groups said they’d prefer that Biden stay in Washington to work on breaking the logjam on voting rights legislation in Congress. So far Democrats have been unable to agree among themselves over potential changes to the Senate filibuster rules to allow action on voting rights, despite months of private negotiations.

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Biden himself has waded only cautiously into the debate — he’s a former longtime senator who largely stands by existing rules but is also under enormous political pressure to engineer a breakthrough.

Voting rights advocates in Georgia and nationwide are increasingly anxious about what may happen in 2022 and beyond, following enactment of Republican-pushed laws that make it harder to vote coming off Donald Trump’s loss in 2020 and subsequent push to overturn the results, despite no evidence of widespread fraud.

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who is senior pastor of the church Biden will visit and who made history as the first Black senator elected in Georgia, said ahead of the speech that “anything that can happen that will continue to shine a bright light on the urgency of this issue is important.”

Warnock planned to travel with Biden to Georgia on Tuesday. He said he believes Biden understands that “democracy itself is imperiled by this all-out assault that we’ve been witnessing by state legislatures all across the country, and this is a moral moment. Everybody must show up.”

And Psaki rejected the idea that Biden hasn’t been a strong enough advocate.

“I think we would dispute the notion that the president hasn’t been active or vocal. He’s given a range of speeches, he’s advocated for voting rights to pass,” she said. “We understand the frustration by many advocates that this is not passed into law yet. He would love to have signed this into law himself.”

But laws have already passed in at least 19 states that make it more difficult to vote. Voting rights groups view the changes as a subtler form of the ballot restrictions like literacy tests and poll taxes once used to disenfranchise Black voters, now a key Democratic constituency.

And Republicans who have fallen in line behind Trump’s election misinformation are separately promoting efforts to influence future elections by installing sympathetic leaders in local election posts and backing for elective office some of those who participated in the violent Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol a year ago.

Georgia is at the center of it all,one of the key battleground states in the 2020 elections. As the votes were being recounted, Trump told a top state election official that he wanted the official to “find” enough votes to overturn his loss. The state’s electoral votes nonetheless went to Biden and both of its Senate seats went to Democrats as well.

Then last year, the Republican governor signed a sweeping rewrite of election rules that, among other things, gives the State Election Board new powers to intervene in county election offices and to remove and replace local election officials. That has led to concerns that the Republican-controlled state board could exert more influence over the administration of elections, including the certification of county results.

The Georgia voting activists said they worked tirelessly to give Democrats control of the Senate and White House, and it’s time for Washington to step up.

Congressional Democrats, for their part, have written voting legislation that would usher in the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections in a generation by striking down hurdles to voting enacted in the name of election security, reducing the influence of big money in politics and limiting partisan influence over the drawing of congressional districts.

The package would create national election standards that would trump state-level GOP laws. It would also restore the ability of the Justice Department to police election laws in states with a history of discrimination.

But in order to pass the legislation, which Republicans have outright rejected, the Democrats say they must change Senate rules allowing a minority of 41 senators to block a bill.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., set up Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17 as the deadline to either pass the voting legislation or consider revising the rules. The Senate is likely to hold a series of test votes this week intended to underscore Republican opposition.

“The fight for the ballot is as old as the Republic,” Schumer wrote to his colleagues. “Over the coming weeks, the Senate will once again consider how to perfect this union and confront the historic challenges facing our democracy.”

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