Joe Biden gave his most muscular defense of the right to vote yet on Tuesday, but offered few specifics on how Democrats could overcome Republican efforts to stymie federal voting reform.
Coming after some activists questioned how seriously the White House was taking the issue, an impassioned speech in Philadelphia marked a clear escalation of the president’s defense of voting rights. Bluntly calling out lies about the 2020 election as “just that, a big lie”, Biden denounced “an assault on democracy”.
“There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote,” he said.
But the most significant part of the speech lay in what he did not say. Biden did not mention the filibuster, the Senate rule under which 60 votes are required to proceed on legislation.
Republicans used the rule last month to block sweeping voting rights reform. While the filibuster is in place, Democrats have virtually no chance of passing any such bill.
Democrats could get rid of the rule with a majority vote but a handful of senators have declined to embrace the idea, saying the filibuster helps preserve the input of the minority party. Biden, who was a senator from Delaware for more than 30 years, has not embraced getting rid of the rule.
In Philadelphia, he made it clear he was not giving up on federal voting rights legislation. But he did not lay out a pathway. Even as he denounced “peddlers of lies” who he said were damaging democracy, he appeared to remain convinced Republicans could be persuaded to sign on to legislation.
A majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was won through voter fraud, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found in May.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Biden insisted. “We have the means, we just need the will. The will to save and strengthen our democracy.
“We’ll engage in an all-out effort to educate voters about the changing laws, register them to vote, and then get the vote out … We’ll be asking my Republican friends in Congress and states and cities and counties to stand up, for God’s sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our elections and the sacred right to vote. Have you no shame?”
There is a rapidly closing window to pass the For the People Act, a voting rights bill that would limit excessive partisan gerrymandering and require automatic and same-day voter registration, among other measures.
States are due to begin drawing new electoral districts in August and unless anti-gerrymandering protections are in place, Republicans will be able to draw maps that will help them retake the House in 2022 and maintain an advantage for the next decade, advocates say.
Civil rights groups gave Biden’s speech a lukewarm reception, saying it was encouraging to see him denounce attacks on voting rights but that he needed to do more.
“We welcome President Biden’s commitments today and applaud the steps he has taken thus far,” said Wade Henderson, interim president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
“He must do even more and use the full weight of his office to protect the freedom to vote and stop the onslaught of un-American, anti-voter scams being pushed across the country.”
Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, a good-government group, urged Biden to address the filibuster.
“As the president ramps up his use of the bully pulpit and engages with senators,” she said, “we urge him to make clear that the Senate minority’s use of the filibuster – a Jim Crow relic, in the words of former President Obama – must never stand in the way of the freedom to vote.”
Ezra Levin, the co-founder of the progressive grassroots group Indivisible, who is among the most vocal critics of Biden on voting rights, also said he was disappointed.
“Given he understands the problem and solution, you’d think he would then describe what the White House is doing to pass that essential legislation,” he said in a text to the Guardian. “But no. He doesn’t even mention the filibuster.
“He passes the buck to some new coalition? He talks about this as a campaign issue in 2022? We have weeks to pass For The People Act – we need the president committing the full force of the White House to getting it passed.”