President Joe Biden made a plea Tuesday in Atlanta for Senate passage of two bills designed to expand the federal government’s role in state and local election laws, looking for another legislative success—after passage of an infrastructure bill—as he approaches one year in office.
Biden and fellow Democrats have sought to frame the bills as “voting rights” legislation.
However, speaking Tuesday afternoon at the Atlanta University Center Consortium on the grounds of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, Biden made several claims that seemed at best to lack context, and in other cases seemed hyperbolic or untrue.
The following are fact checks of six claims from the Biden speech.
1) ‘Democracy Over Autocracy’?
“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation,” Biden said. “Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch.
I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And so the question is, where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?
Biden wasn’t specific about what “injustice” he was referring to. But, in Atlanta, he has attacked the Georgia voting reforms as “Jim Eagle,” presumably meaning that an eagle is larger than a crow, in a reference to the racist Jim Crow laws in the segregated South that suppressed voting by blacks.
Biden referred to 19 states that enacted new election reforms in 2021 that generally expanded voter ID requirements for mail-in ballots; curbed the controversial practice of ballot harvesting, in which political operatives are allowed to collect and distribute large quantities of ballots; and required states to remove the names of dead people and other ineligible voters from voter registration rolls.
Many states also have banned private funding of election administration, in response to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spending almost $400 million on funding it, primarily in Democrat-leaning jurisdictions.
However, as passed in 2021, the Georgia voting law is demonstrably less restrictive than voting laws in liberal states, such as New York, Colorado, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Rhode Island.
Notably, Delaware, a state Biden represented in the U.S. Senate from 1973 till 2009, will have early, in-person voting for the first time in the 2022 elections. The Georgia voting law expands early in-person voting. It allows for 17 days of early in-person voting, seven more days than the new Delaware law permits.
The Georgia law, like other state laws adopted in 2021, extends voter ID requirements to absentee ballots. The law does narrow the time to request an absentee ballot to 11 days before the election, when it was previously the Friday before the election.
The Peach State’s law further expands weekend voting hours and further codifies the use of ballot drop boxes that became common during the 2020 election because of the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Under the new law in Georgia, [former President Donald Trump’s] loyalists will be placed in charge of the state elections,” Biden claimed.
What Biden appeared to be referring to was a provision of the law that increases the role of the state Legislature on the State Election Board. The Georgia secretary of state, the top administrative official over state elections, will have a diminished role. Instead of being the chairman of the Board of Elections, the secretary of state will be a nonvoting, ex-officio member.
The new chairman will be appointed by the majority of the state House and Senate, and will not have been a candidate or allowed to participate in a political party organization or campaign or made political contributions for two years prior to being appointed.
Trump and his supporters were upset with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, for certifying Biden’s narrow victory in the state.
Democrats have also attacked election law reforms in Arizona, Florida, and Texas. Texas in particular prompted attention when Democratic state legislators fled to Washington to deny the Republican majority in Austin a quorum.
2) ‘Changing Senate Rules’
Biden, as a senator from Delaware for more than three decades, staunchly defended the filibuster. In recent weeks, however, Biden has backed carving out an exception to it to pass Democrat-backed federal election legislation.
He called in Atlanta for “changing the Senate rules to ensure it can work again.”
“Because abuse of what was once a rarely used mechanism that is not in the Constitution has injured the body enormously, and its use to protect extreme attacks on the most basic constitutional right is abhorrent,” Biden said.
The president went on to say that he supports changing the Senate rules to allow a majority vote, in whatever way the Senate wants to make the change.
“As an institutionalist, I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills,” Biden said, adding, “If that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.”
He told the crowd: “I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights. … The majority should rule in the U.S. Senate.”
It’s true that the Senate filibuster is not in the Constitution. However, Biden said in July that doing away with the filibuster would thrust Congress into “chaos.”
And as a senator in a floor speech in May 2005, when Republicans controlled the Senate and were considering eliminating the filibuster, Biden objected:
At its core, the filibuster is not about stopping a nominee or a bill, it's about compromise and moderation. The ‘nuclear option' extinguishes the power of independents and moderates in the Senate. That's it; they're done. Moderates are important if you need to get to 60 votes to satisfy cloture. They are much less so if you only need 50 votes.
Let's set the historical record straight. Never has the Senate provided for a certainty that 51 votes could put someone on the bench or pass legislation.
Democrats initially pushed HR 1, which they dubbed the For the People Act, but which Republicans called “the Corrupt Politicians Act.” The proposal would have eliminated most state voter ID laws, mandated same-day voter registration in all states, and expanded ballot harvesting, among other measures.
The Freedom to Vote Act, which is a scaled down version of HR 1, creates national laws for automatic voter registration, universal mail-in voting, new redistricting laws, and campaign finance laws. The companion John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would increase the federal government’s veto power over many state election law changes.
All three measures have passed the House, but have been stalled in the Senate, unable to meet the 60-vote threshold.
3) Jan. 6 and ‘End of Democracy’
Biden invoked the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, in which pro-Trump rioters attempted to stop the certification of the Electoral College votes for Biden.
“The battle for the soul of America is not over,” Biden said. “We must stand together so that Jan. 6 does not mark the end of democracy, but the beginning of a renaissance for our democracy.”
A bipartisan group of nine senators, five Republicans and four Democrats, are working on a plan to reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887. The law allows members of Congress to make objections to counting electoral votes. It was also going to be the last-ditch effort by the Trump campaign to reverse the 2020 election result.
The Economist editorialized Friday that Democratic proposals “are an odd first response to the insurrection of January 6th, 2021” and that reforming the Electoral Count Act is a means to “help prevent another riot.” It said “the problem was not access to the ballot; it was the attempted chicanery with the counting.” And that 1887 law “is vague, confusing, possibly unconstitutional—and ripe for reform.”
The Wall Street Journal separately editorialized, “We agree the riot was disgraceful, but then why not rewrite the law that encouraged Donald Trump’s supporters to think Congress could overturn the 2020 election?”
However, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and the Biden White House have so far said addressing the Electoral Count Act would be insufficient.
4) ‘Suppression’ and ‘Subversion’
Biden claimed that “history has never been kind to supporters of voter suppression.”
He said the choice is between whether people want to be remembered as Martin Luther King Jr., the late civil rights leader, or the late segregationist Democratic Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
He also said it’s a choice between being remembered as President Abraham Lincoln or being remembered as Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
“This is a moment to decide,” Biden said.
Biden also invoked the language that states' voting reform laws were “Jim Crow 2.0.”
“Jim Crow 2.0 is about two insidious things, voter suppression and election subversion,” Biden said. “That’s not hyperbole. That’s fact.”
Democratic politicians have warned of voter suppression since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Indiana’s voter ID law in 2008. They made similar warnings after subsequent high court rulings that allowed states to purge and update voter rolls in 2018 and a major 2013 decision that certain states are no longer required to obtain federal approval for state election law changes.
Republican-led states enacted numerous election law reforms that have focused on voter ID requirements and on cleaning up voter rolls.
Biden asserted that the right to vote is under attack.
In the past two decades, voter participation has increased for the most part, reaching a record turnout in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In 2000, 59.5% of eligible voters turned out. That increased to 63.8% four years later, and remained about the same—63.6%—in 2008. There was a slight drop to 61.8% in 2012 and to 61.4% in 2016. During the pandemic, when mail-in voting was prominent, voter participation shot up to 66.8%. Over that time span, voter registration rates rose from 69.5% in 2000 to 72.7% in 2020.
It’s unknown at this point whether the 2021 election reforms passed in any of the 19 states will have any effect on voter turnout.
In 2019, the National Bureau of Economic Research, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, issued a study from researchers at Harvard University and the University of Bologna in Italy. The study found that voter ID laws have had little effect on turnout or preventing fraud.
“First, the fears that strict ID requirements would disenfranchise disadvantaged populations have not materialized,” the report said.
“Second, contrary to the argument used by the Supreme Court in the 2008 case Crawford v. Marion County to uphold the constitutionality of one of the early, strict ID laws, we find no significant impact on fraud or public confidence in election integrity. This result weakens the case for adopting such laws in the first place,” the study adds.
Various studies in recent years done by professors at the University of Missouri, the University of Delaware, and the University of Nebraska surveying elections from 2000 through 2016 similarly found results that voter ID laws do not suppress voter turnout.
A poll from August by Honest Elections Project Action showed 81% supported voter ID laws, and that included 77% of African American voters. Some 67% of Democrats support voter ID laws. The Washington, D.C.-based Honest Elections Project Action is a conservative group that backs those laws.
Meanwhile, The Heritage Foundation’s Voter Fraud Database shows there have been 1,340 proven cases of voter fraud since 1982, with 1,152 ending in a criminal conviction. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
5) Absentee and Mail-In Voting
Some state election reform bills would not allow mass mail-in voting as occurred under the special circumstances of the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.
Biden noted that Trump voted by absentee ballot in 2020.
However, there are significant differences between traditional absentee voting and the mass mail-in voting that occurred in 2020 across the United States.
The biggest difference is that voters are required to apply for an absentee ballot, whereas mail-in ballots or applications are automatically mailed out. Both are prone to fraud.
6) Voting Rights Act and Republicans
Biden also conflated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that no one in Congress has opposed, at least not publicly, with the two bills that he wants to see pass the Senate.
He noted that Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush all supported renewing the Voting Rights Act when they were president.
“I’ve never seen a circumstance where not one Republican is willing to stand up for justice,” Biden said. He later added of Senate Republicans: “Don’t let the Republican Party become something else.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is still in place.
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