Pushing President Biden on voting rights

Rev. Alvin Herring of Faith in Action spoke to a crowd of over 300 people who gathered in Washington, D.C., last week for a march to the White House in support of federal voter protections and comprehensive immigration reform. (Photo courtesy of Faith in Action.) 

President Biden delivered his first State of the Union address this month, outlining his priorities for the nation. But in a prepared speech of over 6,500 words, he devoted only 83 to voting rights, briefly urging Congress to pass federal legislation that has been consistently stymied by the Senate filibuster.

Among the proposals blocked in the Senate are the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling, and the Freedom to Vote Act, which would create a national standard for voting access.

"The most fundamental right in America is the right to vote — and to have it counted. And it's under assault," Biden said during his address. "In state after state, new laws have been passed, not only to suppress the vote but to subvert entire elections. We cannot let this happen."

Many voting rights advocates responded with disappointment to the fact that Biden's speech failed to detail the impact of anti-voting laws on marginalized communities and the need for comprehensive voter protections — especially since the address, coming amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, centered on the defense of democracy around the world.

"The State of the Union address is where a president has the full attention of the nation to lay out his priorities," David Daley, a senior fellow at FairVote and author of "Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy," recently told Newsweek. "President Biden last night gave voting rights and the future of our democracy about 85 words, and maybe 30 seconds. That's not enough."

Last year, fueled by false claims of voter fraud, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That onslaught has intensified this year: So far legislators in at least 27 states have introduced, pre-filed, or carried over 250 bills with restrictive voting provisions, including voter ID requirements and limits on voter registration and voting by mail — provisions that would have a disproportionate impact on communities of color across the South.

"In the past year, legislators across the country have stacked the laws to make it harder, and in many ways nearly impossible, for many Black and Brown voters to vote," said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, in a statement responding to the State of the Union. "We need immediate action to protect early voting, voting by mail, and prevent further anti-voting laws that silence our communities."

Now voting advocates are seizing the moment by intensifying their mobilization and organizing efforts for voter protections. The day after Biden's March 1 address, advocates and religious leaders marched to the White House to demand action on voting rights as well as citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Led by Faith in Action, a national community organizing network, 300 people made their way through Washington's Black Lives Matter Plaza and towards the White House to call for expanding ballot access.

"We all deserve to safely cast a ballot," Rev. Alvin Herring, Faith in Action's executive director, said in a statement. "Our leaders should be looking to expand democracy, but instead some lawmakers are working to destroy it as we see more and more states add hoops for voters to jump through."

More recently, activists gathered in Selma, Alabama, from March 3-6 to commemorate the 57th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when police violently attacked peaceful voting rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 — an incident that spurred Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The annual event also known as the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee is held to honor the sacrifices of past voting rights activists.

Vice President Kamala Harris attended this year, while President Biden issued a statement saying his administration would continue implementing his executive order to promote voter participation and noting that his Department of Justice has doubled its voting rights enforcement staff. The event's participants recommitted themselves to the fight of restoring the Voting Rights Act, which many considered to be the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement.

"The march signifies the ongoing struggle and steps we need to take to ensure democracy is preserved for Alabamians and all Americans," said Jerome Dees, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Alabama policy director. "We're seeing a dedicated attack on stripping voting access primarily from minorities, so this event reminds us that the fight for the right to vote is still firmly in place."

Voting rights advocates also have plans to keep up the pressure on federal officials in the run up to the midterm elections. Cliff Albright, co-founder of Give Us the Ballot and the Black Voters Matter Fund, recently told Vox that organizers are planning to ask federal candidates to sign a pledge to support voting rights and modify the filibuster.

"We are going to come out and mobilize our community," he said, "but this time we're going to do it with some promissory notes in hand."