Assuming office a year ago with the insurrection still lingering in unprecedented barricades and bullet-proof glass around the Capitol, newly-elected President Biden promised to defend American democracy. But after consistently falling flat on the Senate floor and a year of juggling competing priorities, the president failed to deliver on one of his earliest campaign promises: to protect the people’s right to vote.
Biden’s fiery speech in Atlanta, Georgia on 11 January saw him resuscitate his focus on protecting the “heart and soul” of American democracy in a city Biden called “a cradle of civil rights.” So, what prompted this renewed energy for voting rights?
Voting in the United States
The experience of voting in the United States is starkly different to Australia, being both more difficult and more varied from one state to another. While all states have election day on a Tuesday in early November, the way voting occurs, who gets on the electoral roll and how, where polling happens, and the process of counting votes are all at the discretion of individual states. Since the November 2020 presidential election, which saw the greatest voter turnout since 1900 — 66.9 percent of eligible voters — the use of discretion by individual states is getting a lot more attention.
As President Biden’s Atlanta speech outlined, recent state-led voting rights reforms saw Georgia’s state legislature, and several other Republican-led state legislatures, undermine voting rights by limiting voting access. Memorably, Georgia drew the ire of Democrats last year with the passage of its Election Integrity Act, which, among other measures, took the punitive step of preventing the distribution of food and water to voters in lengthy polling queues.
While Georgia is an important case study in its recent passage of restrictive voter laws, the concern for the future of voting rights is nationwide. According to the progressive-leaning Brennan Centre for Justice at the New York University Law School, all 50 US states introduced election-related bills in 2021. While 62 of these new election-related laws sought to “protect” voting rights by advancing measures that made it easier to vote, the Brennan Centre has said that 34 new laws made voting more difficult in 19 states. This includes measures restricting and limiting the availability of early voting and mail-in ballots, imposing stricter voter identification and voter registration requirements, and making in-person voting more difficult by reducing the availability — by location or opening hours — of polling places on election day.
Although many of these restrictions are concentrated in Republican-led states, one of the more misleading impressions left after Biden’s speech is that this is an issue exclusive to majority-red states. It’s not. In 2021, 12 Democratic-led states introduced bills and passed legislation considered to be “restricting” of voting rights.
Even Biden’s Democrat-led home state of Delaware is by no means a model of accessible voting. Delaware has some of the most restrictive early voting and absentee ballot options in the United States, with early voting only available for ten days before elections. The national average is 23 days. In contrast, Georgia’s Election Integrity Act expanded the time for which voters could cast ballots early and in-person to 17 days and made voting available for an additional Saturday before election day.
Biden’s concerns with voting rights reforms
The problem with recent voting rights reforms, Biden argued, is that they perpetuate “voter suppression” — the attempt to influence the outcome of elections by discouraging certain groups from voting. Additional voter identification requirements, and the curtailment of absentee ballots, as seen in Georgia’s latest raft of reforms, are considered more likely to adversely affect minority groups. This is because minority voters face more hurdles getting to the polls – they are less likely to have the type of photo identification required for voting, less likely to get time off work to attend in-person polling, and are more likely to have trouble finding a polling-site within their county.
Voter suppression is particularly concerning for Democrats, who maintain greater votership among minority groups. In Georgia, a key battleground state in the 2020 election, 88 percent of Black voters voted for Biden, nearly a third of whom voted via mail-in ballots. With last year’s new laws, only 23 mail-in ballot drop boxes will be made available state-wide for future elections in Georgia, compared to the 94 available in 2020.
The attention on mail-in ballots in Georgia is not unexpected. After their greatest uptake to date — 43 percent of all votes — at the 2020 presidential election, several Republicans claimed (without evidence) that mail-in ballots and drop boxes are susceptible to fraud. However, with a more significant uptake of mail-in ballots cast among Democrats, some fear a crackdown on mail-in votes in Republican-led states is more an effort to dissuade Democrat voters than it is an attempt to make the process of voting more secure.
What the president wants
In his Atlanta speech, Biden pleaded for federal lawmakers to “pass the Freedom to Vote Act,” “pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” and to “get rid of the filibuster” in order to improve federal powers over the electoral process. The John Lewis Act, for one, seeks to restore the requirement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that obliged states to obtain pre-clearance from the federal Justice Department before introducing amendments to their voting laws. The other more expansive bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, seeks to create national laws and ensure minimum national standards surrounding the rules for mail-in votes, early voting, and other parts of the electoral process.
Yet, the more revelatory of the president’s demands was his third request: to change the Senate rules and dissolve the filibuster. The Senate filibuster is a rule requiring a supermajority support of 60 Senate members to end debate and move to a vote on a proposed policy. In 2021, it enabled Senate Republicans to stall the progress of the two voting rights bills, and other major Democrat-sponsored legislation, 154 times.
President Biden was an ardent and long-time defender of the filibuster. With thirty years of Senate experience, and as a self-described “institutionalist,” Biden seemed hesitant to make any major changes to Senate procedure, spruiking the principles of compromise during legislative stalemates in 2021. But, after failing to overcome the Congressional logjam stifling anticipated progress on several key campaign promises, the president has evidently changed his tune.
What’s in store for 2022?
Staring down the midterm elections in November 2022, a Republican majority in either the Senate or the House would make the passage of future voting rights legislation, or any other Democrat-led legislation, all but impossible. Biden’s call to dissolve the filibuster is a signal he is desperate to defend his voters and protect the ways in which they cast their votes. Removing the filibuster may not be enough, but it gives the Democrats a better chance to prompt a vote on their voting rights package and a better chance to strengthen the federal regulation of elections. This is especially important with an expected 152 bills seeking to restrict voting rights already up for debate in the legislatures of 18 states this year.
Biden’s speech in Atlanta also revealed his new strategy for 2022: a way to make his party more attractive to voters and more likely to succeed at the ballot box in November. The game plan? Protect voting rights — the foundational pillar of the world’s oldest democracy, and something former President Donald Trump and Biden’s Republican opponents cannot hand-to-heart say they have fought for with integrity.