Biden denounces “21st century Jim Crow assault” on voting access

Washington — President Biden denounced efforts by lawmakers in Republican-led states to impose new restrictions on voting, decrying their efforts as a “21st-century Jim Crow assault” and urging Congress to pass federal laws to protect voting access. 

The president, speaking Tuesday from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, focused much of his ire at Republicans in Texas, accusing them of wanting to “intimidate” voters — of making them drive further and wait longer to vote. His speech on voting rights comes as Democrats in the Texas legislature flew to Washington, D.C., in an attempt to prevent a quorum on a GOP election bill. 

“They want to make it so hard and inconvenient that they hope people don’t vote at all. That’s what this is about. This year alone, 17 states have enacted — not just proposed, but enacted — 28 new laws to make it harder for Americans to vote,” the president said. “Not to mention — and catch this — nearly 400 additional bills Republican members of the state legislatures are trying to pass. The 21st-century Jim Crow assault is real. It’s unrelenting. We’re going to challenge it vigorously.” 

The president noted that he took an oath to defend the country against all threats, foreign and domestic. He insisted, as the White House has in recent days, that the U.S. is “facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”

“That’s not hyperbole. Since the Civil War,” the president repeated. “The confederates back then never breached the Capitol, as insurrectionists did on January the 6th. I’m not saying this to alarm you. I’m saying this because you should be alarmed. I’m also saying this — there’s good news — it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be, for real. We have the means. We just need the will. The will to save and strengthen our democracy.” 

And he urged Congress, in perhaps his strongest language yet, to pass legislation to protect voting rights.

“We must pass the For the People Act. It’s a national imperative. We must also fight for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, to restore and expand voting protections and prevent voter suppression,” the president said.  

Aboard Air Force One, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president will repeat that “these are the most egregious attempts to harm the integrity of our democracy since the Civil War.” The White House has offered that line before, despite efforts to thwart voting rights ahead of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Mr. Biden’s speech on the right to vote comes as the White House faces increasing pressure from voting rights groups and Democrats in Congress to more aggressively push back against efforts in GOP-led states to enact more restrictive voting laws.

Spurred by former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims the 2020 presidential election was rife with fraud, several red states like Florida and Georgia have already enacted new laws tightening their elections procedures, while others, like Texas, are debating new restrictions. Texas Democrats fled their state for Washington, D.C., on Monday night to block a vote on a sweeping elections bill during its special legislative session.

Republicans in Texas are aiming to ban drive-thru voting, although early voting hours could expand in some counties. (Read more about the Texas voting proposals here.)

While the president has tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead his administration’s work to protect voting rights, Psaki said Mr. Biden believes he can use the bully pulpit to push for voting rights legislation and use the powers of the federal government to protect the right to vote.

“He’ll lay out the moral case for why denying the right to vote is a form of suppression and a form of silencing,” Psaki said ahead of Mr. Biden’s remarks. “And how he will redouble his commitment to using every tool at his disposal to continue to fight to protect the fundamental right of Americans to vote against the onslaught of voter suppression laws, based on a dangerous and discredited conspiracy theory that culminated in an assault on our Capitol.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill earlier this year attempted to pass a sweeping elections reform bill, but in June, Republicans in the Senate blocked the measure from advancing. Lawmakers are also working on legislation that would restore protections of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.

But complicating Democrats’ efforts to pass voting rights legislation is the need for any measure to garner support from at least 10 Republicans in the evenly split Senate to move forward.

A Supreme Court decision this month upholding two Arizona voting rules and placing new limits on another provision of the Voting Rights Act that bars elections procedures that discriminate on the basis of race has reignited calls from activists for Congress to act and the president to redouble his fight to protect access to the ballot box.