WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden plans to use a speech in Georgia to throw his support behind changing the Senate’s filibuster rules to allow action on voting rights legislation, calling it a moment to choose “democracy over autocracy.” But some civil rights activists, proclaiming themselves more interested in action than speeches, say they plan to stay away.
Biden on Tuesday will pay tribute to civil rights battles past — visiting Atlanta’s 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 — before turning to today’s challenge.
With Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., setting up Martin Luther King Jr. Day as the deadline to either pass voting legislation or consider revising the rules, Biden is expected to evoke the memories of the U.S. Capitol riot a year ago in more forcefully aligning himself with the effort.
Biden plans to tell his audience, “The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation.”
“Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch,” he’ll say, according to prepared remarks. “I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign and domestic. And so the question is where will the institution of United States Senate stand?”
A White House official, previewing the speech on the condition of anonymity, said Biden would voice support for changing the Senate filibuster rules to ensure the right to vote is defended — a strategy Democrats have been looking to the president to embrace.
Some voting rights advocates planned to boycott the speech and instead spend the day working. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, known for her untiring voting rights work, also was skipping the event. Aides said Abrams 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, co-founder of Black Votes Matter. And it can’t happen soon enough, she said.
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.
Biden in the past has waded more cautiously into the debate — he is 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 his 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.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki rejected some activists’ complaints 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 he wanted the official to “find” enough votes to overturn his loss. The state’s 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 to pass the legislation — which Republicans have outright rejected — the Democrats say they must change the Senate rules that allow a minority of 41 senators to block a bill.
“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.”