On heels of Jan. 6 clarion call, Biden in Georgia to make case for voting rights

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Published January 11, 2022 at 4:00 am

WASHINGTON — Fresh from his Jan. 6 vow to defend democracy, President Joe Biden is in Georgia today to make his case for protecting voting rights in the United States. 

Democrats have been insisting for months that defending the right to vote from state-level limitations is a critical step in preserving America’s democratic values. 

Republicans, however, say the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are simply measures aimed at preventing them from taking power.  

In a 50-50 Senate, the bills have focused fresh attention on Capitol Hill’s two most coveted Democratic votes: West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema of Arizona. 

It also has Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promising to trigger a vote on reforming the filibuster — the procedural tool that makes 60 votes necessary to pass legislation in the upper chamber. 

Neither Manchin and Sinema have shown any wiggle room on doing away with the filibuster, long a priority for progressive Democrats but not the party as a whole. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the moment Monday as a rare one in the country’s history, where “the essential is immediately ripped away from the trivial.”

“We have to ensure Jan. 6 doesn’t mark the end of democracy, but the beginning of a renaissance for our democracy,” Psaki said, referring to last year’s storming of Capitol Hill by Trump supporters intent on preventing confirmation of Biden’s victory.

“We stand up for the right to vote and have that vote counted fairly, not undermined by partisans afraid of who you voted for, or who try to reverse an outcome.” 

An analysis released last year by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 19 states passed 33 new laws in 2021 that stiffen the rules around voting, particularly with regards to voter ID and using early or mail-in ballots. 

Stringent new penalties on election officials in Georgia, Texas, Kansas and Iowa make it harder for election officials to assist voters, such as by delivering completed ballots for people who might need help doing so. 

In Georgia, it’s illegal to provide water or food to people waiting in long lines at polling stations. Texas has made it against the law to encourage voters to request mail-in ballots or to regulate the behaviour of poll watchers.

“Whether it’s education, health care or anything of that sort, being able to exercise their rights to have a say in those decisions — this is how democracy works,” said Alice Huling, a voting rights expert and general counsel for Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit advocacy group focused on electoral issues.   

“Unfortunately, that ability — the freedom to have a say in those decisions — has been facing multiple threats.”

Many of those threats have been in direct response to former president Donald Trump’s persistent and ongoing efforts to undermine the results of the 2020 election, which by every measure, legal and otherwise, legitimately elevated Biden to the White House. 

Critics say the measures represent a broad, concerted effort to disenfranchise certain voters in the U.S., particularly low-income Americans and people of colour, and to make it easier to challenge legitimate election outcomes. 

The antidotes, they say, are already before Congress. 

If passed, the Freedom to Vote Act would establish minimum federal standards for voting access and make it harder for partisan actors to jerry-rig the process. The John Lewis bill, named for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights champion, is designed to limit discrimination at the ballot box.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sees the measures a little differently. 

Democrats are telling “fictional scary stories” about the threat to democracy, McConnell said in a statement last week — evidence that both parties are gearing up for the voting-rights fight to be a defining battle on Capitol Hill in 2022. 

“This is a takeover that Democrats have sought for multiple years, using multiple different justifications,” McConnell said. “It’s not a ‘voting rights’ bill. It is a sprawling, sweeping takeover of our democracy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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