President Joe Biden laid out his case Tuesday in Philadelphia for enacting a pair of federal voting rights proposals that he says would thwart an assault on voting rights taking “new and literally pernicious forms.”
In a nearly 25-minute speech inside the National Constitution Center, Biden said voting regulations enacted in more than a dozen states and proposed in others were threatening to usher in partisan elections and new rules about which votes are legitimate.
“The 21st-century Jim Crow assault is real, it’s unrelenting,” Biden said. “And we’re going to challenge it vigorously.”
Biden used his bully pulpit to push the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the latter of which is named after the late U.S. representative from Georgia and noted civil rights leader. Both proposals put forward by Democrats are stalled in Congress. The proposals would set national voting standards and could overturn some of the recently passed voting regulations.
The president said the proposals would improve access to voting, fight voter suppression, end partisan gerrymandering, and re-establish those protections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that have been weakened by court challenges in the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years.
Biden cast the fight over voting access raging in state houses across the U.S. as a threat to the country’s democratic institutions.
Republican lawmakers in 17 states, including Georgia, have enacted at least 28 new statewide voting regulations and additional 400 proposals regulating voting access are being considered in state legislatures, like Texas, the president said.
Critics say the new voting regulations will make it harder to vote, especially among people of color; supporters counter that the laws will safeguard the voting process and prevent fraud.
While voter suppression is not new in the U.S., Biden said those new regulations are unlike past efforts.
“It’s no longer about who gets to vote or making it easier for eligible voters to vote,” the president said. “It’s about who gets to count — who gets to count whether or not your vote counted at all.”
Biden added that those new voting regulations were “not only targeting people of color, they’re targeting voters of all races and backgrounds.”
The president gave his speech in friendly territory inside the small setting of the National Constitutional center. The audience was full of Democratic state and local officials, including Gov. Tom Wolf, Mayor Jim Kenney, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, and state Reps. Joanna McClinton and Malcolm Kenyatta.
While many officials and a religious leader applauded Biden and his speech, they warned that the Republican-controlled legislatures could put in place voter restrictions in the future.
“The threat is real,” McClinton, D-191st District, said after Biden’s speech.
Evans, D-3rd District, said voters in Philadelphia, especially voters of color, “can’t take anything for granted.”
“What happens in Georgia can happen in Pennsylvania,” Evans said.
Councilmember Cherelle Parker, a former state representative, said Philadelphians should care about the federal push for new voting protections because thinly veiled attempts at voter suppression regulations are consistently being proposed in the state legislatures.
“It’s not just in Texas, it’s not just in down South, as people say — it’s up South in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Harrisburg,” Parker said. “It is here.”
City Commissioner Omar Sabir, one of three elected officials tasked with overseeing Philadelphia’s elections, said disinformation around elections was among the threats to voting here, which can inhibit people from casting a ballot.
“We have to be vigilant on the disinformation,” he said. “That’s concerning.”
Bishop Dwayne D. Royster, executive director of interfaith organization POWER that advocates for racial and economic justice, said the president must do more to secure the passage of federal voting rights protections.
“Speeches are good but we need action,” Royster said. “Pennsylvania is the northern most southern state in America. … And the reality is is that we have a legislature in the state House and state Senate that want to pass draconian, backwards laws that will take us back into Jim Crow deliberately.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton said leading up to Biden’s speech that he wanted the president to acknowledge race was a factor in the critical national issue of voting access. He said Biden “needs to go as far as he can” to protect voting rights.
“Everything’s at stake,” said the national civil rights leader. “Everything we want comes from what is voted on.”