Joe Biden has made an impassioned attack on racist voting laws sweeping America, warning that “the 21st-century Jim Crow assault is real” and demanding of Republicans: “Have you no shame?”
But the president faced instant criticism from progressives for failing in his 20-minute speech to mention the filibuster, a Senate procedural rule that has thwarted efforts to safeguard democracy.
With voting rights under siege from Republican-controlled state legislatures, Biden on Tuesday delivered his most forceful remarks yet on the issue, directly condemning his predecessor Donald Trump’s “big lie” about a stolen election.
He noted that 17 states states have enacted 28 laws that make it harder to vote, with 400 bills pending. These are likely to have a disproportionate impact on people of colour. Citing the legalised segregation of America’s past, the president warned: “The 21st-century Jim Crow assault is real, it’s unrelenting, and we’re going to challenge it vigorously.”
He delivered a blunt message to Republicans: “Stand up, for God’s sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our election and the sacred right to vote. Have you no shame? Whether it’s stopping foreign interference in our elections with the spread of disinformation from within, we have to work together.”
The president has been praised for ignoring Trump’s attacks and insults in an apparent effort to restore civility to Washington. But speaking at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he took off the gloves regarding Trump’s false claims of voter fraud at the 2020 election, which culminated in a deadly attack on the US Capitol on 6 January.
More people than ever before cast a vote, Biden said, and challenges to the outcome were rejected by local election officials, state legislatures and more than 80 judges. Recounts were held in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia and did not alter the outcome.
“It’s clear for those who challenge the results and question the integrity of the election, no other election has ever been held under such scrutiny and such standards. The big lie is just that: a big lie.”
The crowd clapped enthusiastically. In a clear swipe at Trump’s refusal to accept defeat, Biden continued: “In America, if you lose, you accept the results. You follow the constitution. You try again. You don’t call facts ‘fake’ and then try to bring down the American experiment just because you’re unhappy. That’s not statesmanship. That’s selfishness.
“That’s not democracy, it’s a denial of the right to vote. It suppresses, it subjugates, the denial of full and free and fair elections, the most un-American thing that any of us can imagine, the most undemocratic, most unpatriotic.”
Biden noted that the rest of the world is watching, noting that he had just returned from G7 and Nato meetings in Europe.
“They ask me, ‘Is it going to be OK?’ The citadel of democracy in the world. ‘Is it going to be OK?’”
He warned: “So hear me clearly. There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert right to vote in fair and free elections, an assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are, who we are as Americans. But make no mistake, bullies and merchants of fear, peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country.”
Now 78, Biden said he never expected to utter such words.
“We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the civil war, That’s not hyperbole. Since the civil war. The Confederates, back then, never breached the Capitol as insurrectionists did on 6 January. I’m not saying this to alarm you. I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.”
The president has faced pressure from activists to use his “bully pulpit” and do more to raise awareness of the assault on voting rights. Last week he and Kamala Harris, the vice-president leading efforts on the issue, hosted civil rights leaders.
On Tuesday, Biden promised that the justice department will use its authority to challenge” the onslaught of state laws” undermining voting rights in old and new ways. Its voting rights division will double in size.
Biden described it as a “national imperative” for Congress to pass the For the People Act to fight voter suppression, get dark money out of politics and end partisan gerrymandering. But he noted that last month Republicans refused to even debate it.
He also touted the John Lewis Voting Rights Act but neither bill stands a realistic prospect of reaching his desk while Republicans hold 50 Senate seats and are able to deploy the filibuster, which requires a majority of 60 in the 100-seat chamber. Yet Biden did not address the issue.
Some leading Democrats, including House majority whip James Clyburn, a Biden ally, have called for creating a filibuster carveout to allow voting rights bills to pass. Biden made no reference to this workaround solution.
Some observers expressed frustration. Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the grassroots movement Indivisible, tweeted: “We’ve waited more than six months for the president to give a speech on democracy. And that’s what they came up with?”
He added: “You cannot defeat the GOP attack on democracy just by educating voters ahead of 2022. You will lose. We will lose. Our democracy will lose. Stop passing the buck and focus on passing the damn bill.”