President Joe Biden called for an end to filibusters to pass voting rights bills, asking senators to take a stand against voter suppression.
“Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? This is the time to decide to defend our election,” Biden said in a direct plea to senators.
The president and Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Historically Black Colleges and Universities campuses of Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College on Tuesday in support of the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Presidents from Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College’s student government association president welcomed the national leaders to the Atlanta University Center for the monumental occasion.
“It seems so appropriate that President Biden and Vice President Harris would choose this hallowed ground to start the conversation in our nation about one of the most fundamental rights that defines what it means to be a citizen in this country, which is the right to vote,” said Morehouse College President Dr. David A. Thomas.
Clark Atlanta University President Dr. George T. French emphasized the historical legacy of civil rights leaders, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, who contributed their life’s work to the advancement of African Americans on the campuses of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University (previously Atlanta University before the consolidation of Clark College and Atlanta University in 1988).
Additionally, French acknowledged his support for the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts in protecting voting rights.
“We are with you President Biden and Vice President Harris in your efforts to stop the filibuster. We are with you to hold up the Voting Rights Act for the United States of America. Make no mistake about it. This is not a Black nor white issue, this is about democracy,” he said.
Moments before introducing Harris to the stage, Spelman College’s undergraduate SGA President, Jillian Jackson, encouraged student leaders and peers to honor past and present changemakers by taking action against discriminatory voting rights legislation that impacts their surrounding communities.
“We stand on the shoulders of activists, such as Julian Bond, Benjamin Brown, Ruby Doris Smith, and most recently Raphael Warnock and Stacey Abrams. It is our duty as campus leaders and change agents to combat voter discrimination on behalf of our peers and surrounding West End community,” said Jackson.
Senate republicans have used filibusters — the action of delaying debates and votes on a bill — to block the passage of voting rights laws. Filibusters were previously used to block the Act from advancing in the senate in 2020. Biden called on senators to support the bill.
“We need to follow John Lewis’ footsteps,” said Biden. “We need to support the bill in his name.”
The Freedom to Voting Rights Act seeks to protect citizens’ right to vote such as making Election Day a federal holiday, restoring voting rights to former felons and greater federal voter protections for US territories.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, among other things, seeks to overturn the Supreme Court decision in Brnovich vs. Democratic National Convention that drastically loosened protections around race-based voter discrimination. Most importantly, the bill requires states with histories of voter discrimination to gain federal approval before changing or enacting voting rights laws — something that Georgia representatives are all too familiar with.
Following the controversial Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, former President Donald Trump asked lawmakers to tighten voting restrictions. Last April, Georgia Republicans passed the Election Integrity Act, a constrictive voting rights bill which included the limitation of voting drop boxes and more stringent voter identification rules.
“Here in Georgia for years you’ve done the hard work of democracy … and what’s been the reaction of Republicans in Georgia? Chose the wrong way, the un-democratic way,” the president said in regards to the passage of the aforementioned bills.
After receiving criticisms for not taking a stronger stance against voter suppression, Biden vowed to travel the country and speak against it.
In late 2021, the Biden-Harris administration did just that with Atlanta being their most recent stop. However, several voting rights groups have condemned the president and vice president for not putting any action behind their words.
According to Biden, measures have been taken to support voting rights. Under the leadership of Harris, they have directed federal agencies to promote access to voting and appointed top civil rights advocates to help the U.S. Department of Justice, doubling its voting rights staff.
“I will not yield, I will not fledge, I will defend the right to vote,” he said.
Recounting the violent uprising that occurred at the nation’s capital a year ago, Harris reiterated her and Biden’s obligation to safeguard the U.S. Constitution during her speech.
“Last week, one year after a violent mob breached the United States capitol, the president of the United States and I spoke from its hallowed halls. We made it clear and swore to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States,” said Harris.
“We will fight to safeguard our democracy. We will fight to secure our most fundamental freedom – the freedom to vote,” she continued.
Harris encouraged citizens to not become complacent and normalize anti-voter laws that have made it more challenging to cast one’s ballot due to stronger restrictions.
“We must not be deceived into thinking that a law that makes it more difficult for students to vote is normal. We must not be deceived into thinking a law that makes it illegal to help a voter with a disability vote by mail is normal. There is nothing normal about a law that makes it illegal to pass out water or food to people standing in long voting lines,” she stressed.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s Election Integrity Act of 2021 introduced new voting laws that changed the qualifications of voting absentee, shifted early voting days and remodeled how elections are conducted, which has made it harder for marginalized groups to participate in voting.
“I have heard your outrage about the anti-voter law here [Georgia] and how many voters will likely be kept from voting. Georgia is not alone. Across our nation, anti-voter laws could make it more difficult for as many as 55 million Americans to vote,” said Harris.
“My fellow Americans, do not succumb to those who would dismiss this assault on voting rights as an unfounded threat, who would waive this off as a partisan gain. The assault on our freedom to vote will be felt by every American in every community and political party. If we stand idly by, our entire nation will pay the price for generations to come,” she continued.
Harris called on the Senate to change the filibuster rules and expressed her support of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom To Vote Act.
“The American people have waited long enough. The Senate must act. The bottom line is this. Years from now our children and grandchildren will ask us about this moment. They will look back on this time and ask us not about how we felt, but what did we do,” she said.