One year after former president Donald Trump's supporters tried to overturn an election, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a dire warning at the scene of the attack: The threat to democracy and the potential for political violence continues, driven by new, Republican-led voter restrictions across the country.
“Those who stormed this Capitol, and those who instigated and incited, and those who called on them to do so, held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy,” Biden said. “They didn’t come here out of patriotism or principle. They came here in rage."
He asked: "Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm?"
Both Biden and Harris emphasized how, in the aftermath of the attempted insurrection, the fragility of American democracy and the need to actively defend it has been clear, evoking hard-won battles for the vote by Black civil rights leaders.
"If we do not defend it,” Harris said, “Democracy simply will not stand."
One year on, there are hundreds of criminal cases stemming from the riot winding their way through the court system. Far-right extremism continues to adapt and worm its way into the mainstream. And Republicans continue to push conspiracy theories around the election and stall voting rights reforms in the Senate.
“New laws are being written not to protect the vote but to deny it,” Biden said. "Not only to suppress the vote but to subvert it. Not to strengthen and protect our democracy. Because the former president lost, instead of looking at election results from 2020 and saying they need new ideas or better ideas to win more votes, the former president and his supporters have decided the only way for them to win is to suppress your vote and subvert our elections. It’s wrong. It’s undemocratic.”
He continued: “Let's speak plainly about what happened in 2020. Even before the first ballot was cast, the former president was preemptively sowing doubt about the election results."
Biden and Harris made the case that the Jan. 6 attack was not only a physical threat to democracy but that the election denial ideology behind the attack also spurred a series of voter restriction bills from Republican legislators across the country.
In the past year, 19 states have passed laws that restrict voter access, on the same basis that drove hundreds, including groups of white supremacists, to storm the Capitol grounds, assault and demean police officers, and hunt for elected officials while a gallows hung on the Capitol lawn: the false narrative, pushed by Trump, that Biden stole the election.
Biden called Trump out in his address on Thursday morning, pointing to his actions spurring on the attackers on Jan. 6 and his continued attempts to spread misinformation and inflame election denial conspiracy theories.
“For the first time in our history, a president not just lost an election. He tried to prevent a peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob reached the Capitol. But they failed. They failed,” Biden said.
“His bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution,” he said. "He cannot accept that he lost."
Harris compared the need to defend democracy from extremists today to the blood spilled in the battle for civil rights in decades past.
“What they sought to degrade and destroy was not only a building,” she said. “What they were assaulting were the institutions, the values, the ideals that generations of Americans have marched, picketed, and shed blood to establish and defend.”
“On Jan. 6, we all saw what our nation would look like if the forces who seek to dismantle our democracy are successful,” Harris said.
“The 'big lie' didn't just drive the insurrection,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice. "It has driven a wave of anti-voter laws across the country, laws to restrict voting and pull cut back on voting rights and laws to change who does the counting — sabotage on top of voter suppression."
Waldman said Biden has been “more muted than would have been ideal” about voting rights and the threats to democracy over the past year, but that he sees the president being more proactive now: between his remarks this week and plans to travel to Georgia next week specifically to talk about voting rights reform.
Voting rights advocates said it was important to hear Biden clearly and specifically condemn anti-democratic forces. But they ultimately have their eyes on key voting rights legislation.
Protecting American democracy, voting rights advocates said, means going beyond holding those responsible for Jan. 6 responsible for their actions — the real goal is passing those voter protection measures, which a majority of Republicans in the Senate oppose. Biden directly pointing to voting reform bills as a means to stem the tide of anti-voter access bills underwritten by election denial ideology was a welcome sign to voting rights advocates.
“Republicans will say, Oh, he's politicizing this solemn day of remembrance or whatever,” Waldman said. “Every major speech by presidents that are effective at a moment like this have a political purpose,” he added, referring to the Gettysburg Address and Bill Clinton’s speech after the Oklahoma City bombing, a right-wing terrorist attack.
On the eve of the anniversary, Rev. Leah Daughtry, campaign manager with Fighting for Our Vote, said that she wanted to see Biden make a clear connection between the events of Jan. 6 and the need for voting rights protection to counter the ongoing threats to elections and democracy in the US.
“I want to see Joe Biden remind us of who we are, of what our principles are, what our higher calling is, and then I want to see him tie that to the existential threat that we have right now,” Daughtry said. “That we shouldn't take for granted that what happened on Jan. 6 can never happen again. That he is fully committed with everything that he and the administration has to ensure that our voting rights are protected.”
Two bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, would represent the most significant defenses to voters' rights since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. The first bill would set national standards for elections, outlaw gerrymandering, enshrine the right to vote by mail, and standardize voter ID laws. The second would reestablish antidiscrimination protections stripped away from the Voting Rights Act by two Supreme Court decisions in recent years, which has left voters of color, in particular, vulnerable to having their access to voting cut off by state and local officials.
“In response to Jan. 6, it would stop the voter suppression wave,” Waldman said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer urged the Senate to pass voting rights reforms in response to Jan. 6 in a "Dear Colleague" letter on Monday.
“January 6th was a symptom of a broader illness — an effort to delegitimize our election process and the Senate must advance systemic democracy reforms to repair our republic or else the events of that day will not be an aberration — they will be the new norm,” Schumer wrote.
Senate Democrats support both bills — but that’s not enough to get past Republicans, in an evenly divided Senate where it takes 60 votes to pass any legislation because of the filibuster. The current challenge for Biden and Senate Democrats is to convince Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to support changes to Senate procedure that would provide an exception to filibuster rules, preventing Republicans from shooting down voting rights legislation.
“I mean, it's just been a series of unfortunate events and fumbles,” New Georgia Project CEO Nsé Ufot said about how the Biden administration has handled the voting reform bills.
While voting rights advocates acknowledge that Biden may not have more forcefully called out Republicans for stalling voting reform — the way activists have — because he may need them on his side to pass other aspects of his agenda, Ufot said she’s disappointed he hasn’t used his years of experience and relationships in the Senate to push harder for voting rights bills.
“I did not serve four decades in the United States Senate. I can't whip votes. I can't get my former colleagues to get rid of the filibuster. They can,” she said. “So there are things that I can and should be doing, as an organizer, as an activist, as a citizen. And there are things that only the president of the United States can do.”
Daughtry, by contrast, said she thought Biden has been forceful already in pushing for the bills. "I want to see him continue to double down with his colleagues, his former colleagues in the Senate, to put the full resources of the administration to work in ensuring that we can pass voting rights legislation," she said.
“The buck stops with the United States Senate, and they've got to do their jobs to preserve democracy,” Daughtry said. “It is not the president's job alone.”