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‘A test of our time,’ Biden says in Philly speech on voting rights

US President Joe Biden called the right to vote “a test of our time” and called on Americans to protect it amid GOP-led changes to election laws and threats to voting rights in a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 14 July 2021 (tca/dpa/MIA) — US President Joe Biden called the right to vote “a test of our time” and called on Americans to protect it amid GOP-led changes to election laws and threats to voting rights in a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

“Some things in America should be simple and straightforward — perhaps the most important of those things, the most fundamental of those things, is the right to vote,” Biden said to applause.

“Its up to all of us to protect that right,” he added. “This is a test of our time.”

He later called GOP laws that would give political figures more say over certifying elections “the most dangerous subversion” of elections in U.S. history.

Biden began speaking shortly after 2:45 p.m. to a crowd of several hundred, with spectators peering over the upper balcony and stairs in the Grand Hall of the museum.

He called for efforts to pass Democrats’ sweeping voting rights bill, the For the People Act, and blasted false attacks on the 2020 election, saying not just Americans, but the entire globe is watching for signs of the strength of the world’s leading democracy.

“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,” Biden said. “That’s not democracy, that’s the denial of the right to vote. It suppresses. It subjugates.”

The speech comes as he faces increasing pressure but diminishing options on voting rights, one of his and his party’s top priorities. It’s an issue that has roiled politics in Pennsylvania and across the country.

Democrats in recent weeks have seen their voting rights bill stifled in the Senate and another Supreme Court decision further weaken the enforcement powers of the Voting Rights Act, while Republican state legislatures continue advancing laws making voting more difficult.

Biden pointed directly to those laws, calling them a “21st Century Jim Crow assault.”

“They want to make it so hard and inconvenient that they hope people don’t vote at all,” he said.

Biden said he would beef up the Department of Justice’s enforcement of voting rights laws. But at the same time, his call for public action signaled his limited powers to move legislation in Washington, where Democrats’ slim Senate majority, and the Senate filibuster, has left them unable to advance any major voting bill.

Some of the president’s top allies, including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.), and civil rights leaders have pressed Biden to call for an end or modification to that Senate rule, which requires a supermajority for most legislation and stands in the way of Democrats’ voting rights push.

Biden has said it’s up to the Senate to make those rules and noted that Democrats don’t currently have enough votes to change it. (Several of their members oppose the idea.) White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Biden hasn’t supported a change because Democrats have often used the rule themselves to block GOP initiatives.

Invited guests at the Constitution Center included members of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Congressional delegation and voting rights advocates such as Paulette Whitfield, of Strawberry Mansion.

Whitfield said she’s worried about changes to election laws around the country — and persistent lies about the election being stolen.

“It reminds me of the 60s,” Whitfield said. “They are taking our voting rights away and people are ignoring it like it’s not happening.”

Whitfield, 68, said she appreciates Biden focusing a speech a on voting rights but is eager to hear what he’ll do. “It’s time for you to tell us what you’ll do about all this. What will you do for us?”

Voting rights and Republican calls for tighter laws have roiled Pennsylvania ever since the lead-up to the 2020 election, and in the months since.

Republicans, often spurred by a litany of false claims about fraud, argue elections are too vulnerable and have challenged Democrats to identify specific voters who would be disenfranchised by their proposals. Independent research has long made clear that voter fraud is infinitesimally rare. So has every serious review of the 2020 results.

Republicans also argue that Democrats are trying to impose national standards on elections, tilt the rules in their own favor, and force major taxpayer funding of campaigns, as part of Democrats’ plan to reduce the influence of big political donors.

“After Democrats failed to pass their federal takeover of our elections … Biden is continuing their dishonest attacks on commonsense election integrity efforts,” said a statement from Republican National Committee spokesperson Danielle Álvarez. “Meanwhile, Republicans are engaged in state-led efforts to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat, and polling shows Americans overwhelmingly support these laws.”

Biden arrives in Philadelphia days after State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), a likely gubernatorial candidate and a leading election denier in the state, launched his own review of the 2020 election, targeting the city and two other counties.

“Philadelphia was a cesspool of corruption, which will soon be revealed by the audit,” former President Donald Trump said in a statement Tuesday morning, despite a lack of any evidence of significant fraud in the city or elsewhere, including in the many lawsuits Trump filed.

Trump’s margins improved in Philadelphia compared to 2016.

“Why not let the audit go forward and make everybody, on both sides, happy?” Trump said, adding: “Philadelphia was one of the most corrupt cities in the Country — and so is Detroit, and so is Milwaukee, and so is Atlanta, and Pittsburgh, and Oakland, and Baltimore.”

Pennsylvania already conducted an audit of a sample of ballots in 63 of its 67 counties, which affirmed the accuracy of the outcome. Counties are also required by law to audit a small sample of ballots.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, last month vetoed a sweeping election overhaul that would have tightened voter ID requirements, created early voting, and instituted new rules for drop boxes, among other major changes.

And around the country, Republicans have pushed to scale back voting access and states have introduced measures that would take power away from local election officials or punish them for inadvertent mistakes.

In Texas on Monday, Democratic state lawmakers left the state to deny Republicans a quorum and block voting on controversial GOP legislation that would ban drive-through and 24-hour voting and make mail-in voting more difficult.

In Georgia, the governor signed a measure giving lawmakers more control of the state elections board. Iowa increased the oversight its elected secretary of state has over county officials, and Arkansas changed the way it handles complaints from county clerks and local prosecutors, diverting them to a group of mostly Republican appointees.

A Supreme Court ruling earlier this month further intensified the debate. The court upheld voting restrictions in Arizona, including a ban on collecting absentee ballots by anyone other than a relative and a requirement to dispose of any ballots cast in the wrong precinct. A lower court had ruled the regulations had an unequal impact on minority voters. Legal scholars have said the Supreme Court decision effectively “guts” the 1965 Voting Rights Act and could lead to bolder changes to election procedures at the state level.

Election laws are a particularly salient concern to a number of groups heavily represented in Philadelphia, including voters of color and lower-income voters, who could be disproportionately affected by proposed restrictions spreading across the country.

Timothy Jones, 41, drove in from Pittsburgh for the speech. Jones, a Navy veteran who has a felony on his record, moved from Florida to Pennsylvania in part because he wanted to be able to vote.

His first vote after moving was for Biden.

”We need a plan to counteract the attack on voting,” Jones said. “We need a message of hope and a message of healing because there are so many voters who are scared right now.”

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