A cadre of prominent voting rights organizations working on the ground in Georgia is boycotting President Joe Biden’s voting rights speech in the state Tuesday, protesting the slow progress on two landmark bills that have stalled in the Senate.
“What we're saying is we don't need another speech. What we need is actually a plan,” said Cliff Albright, executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, on a call with reporters. “What we need is for him to lean into the filibuster and do what he has not yet done, which is give a clear call for it to be modified, not just telling us what he's open to, and not just telling us when he could possibly support if it's necessary, but to have a full-throated call for changing the filibuster in order to pass voting rights.”
Biden plans to travel to Georgia with Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday, where both are slated to give speeches on the importance of voting rights legislation. There’s been little movement on Capitol Hill — despite Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's call for the Senate to vote on measures that would lay the groundwork to pass the voting rights legislation before Jan. 17.
“There is not time during these fights to attend a speech and meet to reiterate the seriousness of this moment,” the groups said in a statement a day before Biden and Harris's trip to Georgia. The statement was signed by the New Georgia Project Action Fund, the Black Voters Matter Action Fund, the Asian American Advocacy Fund, the GALEO Impact Fund, and James Woodall, the former president of the Georgia NAACP.
Asked about the groups’ calls for Biden to stay in DC and work on passing legislation rather than traveling to Georgia for the speech, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that the president would prefer to pass voting rights legislation with the support of a majority of the Senate.
“His plan is to sign voting rights legislation into law,” Psaki told reporters during a Monday press briefing. “That requires a majority of senators to support it even if there are changes to the Senate rules, which is something the president has expressed an openness to.”
The voting rights groups’ announcement to skip the president’s speech comes as they have grown frustrated that Senate procedure has stalled the bills. Senate Democrats support both bills but face a steep hurdle in the evenly divided chamber, where it takes 60 votes to pass legislation. Democrats have called for reforms to the procedure, which would require 51 votes, but Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have each voiced opposition to any carve-outs on the procedure.
“It was very telling to us that this wasn't item number one on the agenda as soon as the president was inaugurated,” said Kendra Davenport Cotton, chief operating officer of the New Georgia Project.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell aggressively used the filibuster to kill legislation during the Obama and Trump administrations and has consistently warned Democrats against changing the rules.
At the same time, 19 restrictive voting laws were passed in 2021 by Republicans on the state and local levels across the country, propelled by conspiracy theories denying the legitimacy of Biden’s win. In the past year, Georgia Republicans have passed several of those restrictive bills; the legislation at stake in the Senate would prevent those bills from taking effect, requiring states not to impose unreasonable voter ID and access laws and implementing national standards for how elections are run.
“We think it sets a serious precedent that at the end of the day, when there are people that are coming after your base of voters, right, and you're stringing it out, and you're not reacting,” said LaTosha Brown, a Georgia-based advocate and cofounder of Black Voters Matter.
She added, “How is it that now, myself, as a Black woman — I actually have less protection now than I did a year ago?”
Biden previously called on the Senate to return to a rule that would require senators to continuously speak on the floor to delay a bill from passing. But advocates on the call said that the president needs to more forcefully back changing the filibuster rules.
The two bills in question would significantly increase voter access in the US. The Freedom to Vote Act would standardize voter ID laws and permanently allow voting by mail, ban gerrymandering, and set national standards for elections. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would reinforce portions of the Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by two Supreme Court decisions in the past decade, by specifically reinstating antidiscrimination protections for voters.
Albright said the groups would only be satisfied if Biden and Harris arrive in Georgia tomorrow to announce an actual agreement on voting rights — with the backing of Sinema and Manchin. “Anything short of that would be disappointing and not worth the trip to Georgia,“ he said. “But the bare, bare minimum would be, as we have all said, a full-throated call for modifying the filibuster rules.”
Some advocates want Biden to more firmly back Schumer’s call to hold a vote before Jan. 17 on carving out a voting rights exception to the filibuster.
“We need Biden to demand that that vote happens this week,” Woodall said.
He wants Biden to “call Manchin and Sinema out directly” for holding up the legislation.
Rep. Nikema Williams of Georgia said she will attend the president's and vice president's speeches because she sees it as an opportunity to ground the push for the voting rights legislation in "the cradle of the civil rights movement."
"I represent a district that was once held by Congressman John Lewis," she said. "And I am going because it's imperative to me that the White House, specifically the president and the vice president, show that we have the full weight of the White House behind creating a path forward with the filibuster to get voting rights passed."
One major national civil rights group, the NAACP, did not join the local groups’ denunciation of the president’s visit — rather, its members will be watching closely in the days after the address for the president to push changes to the filibuster and then the voting rights bills, NAACP President Derrick Johnson told BuzzFeed News.
Johnson said he’s seen the administration “muscle through and pass” other legislation like COVID relief, the debt ceiling raise, the infrastructure bill, and unemployment tax.
“Placing the priority on the policy issues isn't about words, it is about outcomes. And we have yet to have an outcome of voting rights protections over a year,” he said.
He said he does understand Georgia civil rights groups not supporting Biden’s visit. “What they’re expressing is their frustration knowing how important this is," he said. “So as I’m listening intently tomorrow, I’ll be watching the following days.”
As far as he’s concerned, though, “how to get there is irrelevant as long as they get there.”