Biden’s speech didn’t cover emerging critical threats to US elections

President Biden calls for voting rights reform during a visit to Atlanta
Associated Press/Patrick Semansky

For months, many voting rights activists and civil rights organizations have expressed disappointment and questioned President Biden’s absence in advocating for voting rights reform. So much so, the media harped on the number of civil rights activists that would not be in attendance for his speech. After all, this administration campaigned on two significant issues important to the core of the Democratic base: criminal justice and voting rights reform. 

Moreover, Biden enthusiasts harkened back to then-Sen. Biden in 2006, when he presided over what was designed to be an extension of the Voting Rights Act for the next 25 years. 

Regrettably, those 25 years didn’t come because, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Section 5 required certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit proposed changes in voting procedures to the Department of Justice or to a federal district court before those changes went into effect to ensure they would not harm racial minority voters.  

So, in all fairness, what Biden and Vice President Harris attempted Tuesday in Atlanta, Ga., — on the grounds of the largest consortium of Historically Back Colleges and Universities in the country, with a legacy of student activism that has nurtured minds and souls from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Weldon Johnson to voting rights activist and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — was to apply pressure on the U.S. Congress, especially the Senate.   

Biden’s speech hit the right tone with a curated crowd of students behind him adorned in collegiate gear. It had the passion the issue deserves, he attacked the filibuster and called for its amendment as a tool to create change, but is it a little too late? Or is it simply insufficient as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), other Senate Democrats and every Republican — including the 16 who voted for the 2006 Voting Rights legislation — will not change the filibuster rules, and Biden knows that? Democrats would need their senators to back them in a chamber split along tensed political lines.  

But the speech gave him a much-needed bully pulpit during midterms, something he has not used since his election. 

“This is the moment to defend our democracy…I think the threat to our democracy is so great that we must find a way to pass this voting rights bill,” Biden said. It would take an epiphenomenon for the Senate to pass the Freedom to Vote Act. But unfortunately, there was no plan of action, no strategy, and the speech, while focused on voting rights, obscured the more significant threat to the country’s election integrity for the midterms and the 2024 presidential election: the idea that a future election loser could subvert the country’s electoral machinery to take power.   

Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election failed, but not wholly, for across the country, between Jan. 1 and Dec. 7, 2021, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting voting access. More than 440 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in Republican-led 2021 legislative sessions.  

Unfortunately, the momentum around this legislation continues. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 13 bills restricting voting access have been pre-filed for the 2022 legislative session in four states. In addition, at least 88 restrictive voting bills in nine states will carry over from 2021. These early indicators — coupled with the ongoing mobilization around Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from him — suggest that efforts to restrict and undermine the vote will continue to be a severe threat this year and beyond.   

These bills have called for rewriting statutes to seize partisan Republican control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to reject, about which results to certify, and which to discard. In addition, these Republican-controlled legislatures are plotting to pillage power from election officials who refused to go along with the scheme last November, aiming to replace them with backers of the Big Lie.  

Here is the unfortunate scenario for the future of our elections, especially our presidential election — the Electoral College notwithstanding, thousands of votes will be discarded, if not millions. Then, the winner will be avowed the loser. Finally, as Trump attempted to do, the loser will be certified, president-elect.   

And this is why regardless of the failures of this administration and Congress, it is vitally important that progressives, liberals, African Americans, and all who care about the future of America vote in the forthcoming elections. No matter what it takes, frankly. Furthermore, I’d encourage civil rights activists and others to start acting along dimensions of meaningful civil protest and lobbying their senators. When the legislative arena comes to a standstill, then the strategy, first and foremost, must enlarge the playing field and go outside of Congress to build pressure.   

Aside from making fiery speeches to rouse activists, a president is limited to an extent in what they can do to enlarge the field.  It’s the activists who need to be developing plans to create a broader context to make recalcitrant legislators more susceptible to White House efforts. Even President Lyndon Johnson conveyed to King and other movement leaders that their actions could help force his hand and the hand of Congress.   

Some of today’s voting rights activists are under the illusion that all that has to happen is for Biden to say ‘do it’ and it will happen. However, Biden proudly touts himself as an institutionalist of the Senate — could he like, LBJ cajole his former colleagues to get voting rights done? Could he attach and refuse federal money to states that restrict voting access? The measure of his speech will be determined when Biden and Harris return to Washington, especially if the Senate vote fails.   

But in the meantime, Democrats are lining up to execute their well-rehearsed and deeply ingrained circular firing squad formation, but the target this time is the federal republic. Democracy is already in crisis; I fear the inaction of the Democrats and the refusal of Republicans coupled with their complicity will lead to the downfall of America.  

Pray God I am wrong.  

Quardricos Bernard Driskell is an adjunct professor of legislative politics at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. Follow him on Twitter @q_driskell4 

Tags Civil Rights Act Civil rights movement Filibuster in the United States Senate Joe Biden Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Politics of the United States Republican Party Republicanism in the United States Voter suppression Voter suppression in the United States

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