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Voting rights advocates attend a protest

Shenita Binns of Atlanta, Georgia holds up a sign that reads "We Must Protect Our Vote!" as she and other voting rights activists participate in a protest in Arlington, Virginia on August 6, 2021. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Georgia Voting Rights Groups to Boycott Biden Speech

"We don't need even more photo ops," says the co-founder of Black Voters Matter. "We need action."

Jake Johnson

Several prominent Georgia-based advocacy groups are planning to boycott President Joe Biden's voting rights speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, criticizing the event as yet another symbolic gesture in the face of concrete threats to the franchise nationwide.

"We don't need even more photo ops," Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told reporters during a press conference on Monday. "We need action, and that action is in the form of the John Lewis Voting Rights [Advancement] Act as well as the Freedom to Vote Act, and we need that immediately."

"President Biden and Vice President Harris must do more than deliver broad platitudes."

LaTosha Brown, another co-founder of the group, echoed that message, saying: "We're beyond speeches."

Black Voters Matter is part of a civil rights coalition that is urging Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to stay out of Georgia until they have a substantive plan to overcome the Senate's 60-vote filibuster rule and push voting rights legislation through Congress.

When asked during a Monday media briefing whether the White House has a strategy to ensure that voting rights bills don't languish in the narrowly Democratic Senate, Press Secretary Jen Psaki responded that Biden's "plan is to sign voting rights legislation into law."

"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," Psaki added.

That answer is unlikely to satisfy activists who have been pushing Biden for months to take a firm stand in favor of eliminating or weakening the filibuster, which Senate Republicans have used to block debate on three separate Democratic voting rights measures.

In a joint statement Monday evening, Black Voters Matter, the GALEO Impact Fund, the New Georgia Project Action Fund, the Asian American Advocacy Fund, the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, and Georgia NAACP president James Woodall announced that they won't be in attendance for Biden and Harris' remarks in Atlanta.

"Instead of giving a speech tomorrow, the U.S. Senate should be voting tomorrow," said the coalition, which helped get out the vote for Democrats in 2020, propelling Biden to victory in Georgia and securing two key Senate seats for the party.

"What we need now, rather than a visit from the president, vice president, and legislators is for the White House and Senate to remain in D.C. and act immediately to pass federal legislation to protect our freedom to vote," the groups added.

Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed to push ahead with Senate rule changes no later than January 17 if Republicans continue to filibuster legislation aimed at combating the massive wave of Republican-led voter suppression efforts in states across the U.S.

Eliminating or reforming the filibuster can be done with 51 votes in the Senate, but Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have refused to support any changes to the 60-vote rule.

The Washington Post reported late Monday that Sinema "reiterated her opposition in a virtual lunch last week with other Democratic senators."

Lacking unified support for filibuster reform within his own caucus, Schumer on Monday made an offer to his Republican counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): If the GOP agrees to suspend the filibuster rule and hold votes on Democratic voting rights bills at a simple-majority threshold, Democrats will allow votes on Republican priorities at that same threshold.

"The Republican leader seems to want to place a bunch of gotcha bills on the legislative calendar that he thinks would be tough votes for Democrats to take as some kind of payback for pursuing legislation to protect the sacred right to vote," Schumer said in a floor speech on Monday. "Well, we Democrats aren't afraid of these votes."

McConnell rejected Schumer's proposal.

"We need a functioning Senate," Brett Edkins, managing director of policy and political affairs at Stand Up America, tweeted in response. "We need a majority vote on voting rights now!"

Biden's high-profile speech in Atlanta on Tuesday will come at what advocates see as a make-or-break moment for voting rights heading into the pivotal 2022 midterms, in which Republicans are poised to gerrymander their way back to a House majority.

Ari Berman of Mother Jones noted Monday that "policies in the Freedom to Vote Act such as same-day registration, no-excuse absentee voting, and two weeks of early voting could still be implemented in 2022—and the number of states that quickly expanded voting options during the pandemic provides a model for how it could be done."

"Of course, all of these changes are theoretical if Democrats cannot overcome the fundamental asymmetry that has marked the fight over voting rights for the past year," Berman added. "Republicans at the state level have passed a slew of anti-democracy measures through simple majority, party-line votes, but by stubbornly supporting the filibuster Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have allowed 41 GOP senators representing just 21% of the country to block any effort to protect voting rights."

In a statement ahead of Biden's address, a coalition of progressive advocacy groups including Stand Up America, Indivisible, People for the American Way, and the Sierra Club said that "the American people need their president to ramp up the pressure" on Senate Democrats to reform the filibuster and safeguard voting rights from intensifying GOP attacks.

A senior administration official told the New York Times that Biden will use his speech to make the case for a voting rights carve-out for the filibuster, rather than complete elimination of the rule.

"With the midterm elections drawing near and no Senate action yet on voting rights legislation—one of the president and vice president's keystone campaign promises—they know the stakes are higher than ever," the progressive organizations said. "President Biden and Vice President Harris must do more than deliver broad platitudes to longtime civil rights leaders."

"We look forward to hearing their specific plan to pass voting rights legislation this month," they added, "and to seeing the administration do everything in its power to get it done."

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