The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden attacks new Georgia voting law as ‘Jim Crow’

Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon (D) is placed in the back of a patrol car after she attempted to knock on Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s office door during his remarks on a new voting law.
Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon (D) is placed in the back of a patrol car after she attempted to knock on Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s office door during his remarks on a new voting law. (Alyssa Pointer/AP)

President Biden issued a full-throated attack Friday 0n a new Georgia law that dramatically constrains voting access in the Peach State, calling it “Jim Crow in the 21st Century” and putting his voice behind efforts to pass voting-rights legislation in Congress.

Biden’s criticism of Georgia’s SB 202, which was signed into law Thursday evening, came after similarly vehement comments from the president at his first formal news conference this week, in which he denounced efforts by Republican-led state legislatures to restrict access to voting.

“Among the outrageous parts of this new state law, it ends voting hours early so working people can’t cast their vote after their shift is over,” Biden said of the Georgia statute. “It adds rigid restrictions on casting absentee ballots that will effectively deny the right to vote to countless voters.”

Like other critics, Biden took particular aim at a provision that forbids people from providing drinks or food, including water, to voters waiting in line at the polls — arguing that it was Republicans themselves who created those lines by cutting the number of polling sites, especially in majority Black communities.

But some civil rights activists argued that Biden is not doing enough beyond his impassioned rhetoric to ensure the passage of a federal voting protection law.

“I think he has to do more, and do everything within his power,” said Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. “I understand he’s trying to work across the aisle and get bipartisanship, but voting is sacred. So he has to be out in public explaining why it’s necessary that it pass, that it’s important.”

The White House has been somewhat vague about Biden’s plans to push for voting rights, but the president said Friday he would continue to make the public argument that voting restrictions hurt democracy.

“I will take my case to the American people — including Republicans who joined the broadest coalition of voters ever in this past election to put country before party,” Biden said. “If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let the people vote.”

SB 202 is one of the first comprehensive state bills to significantly restrict voting access in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when former president Donald Trump repeatedly and baselessly attacked the integrity of state elections systems.

Trump’s attacks were particularly severe in Georgia, after he became the first Republican presidential nominee to lose the state since 1992.

The new Georgia law has several components: It allows state lawmakers to initiate takeovers of local election boards while stripping power from the secretary of state. It institutes new ID requirements for mail ballots and curtails the use of drop boxes. It includes the ban on providing food and drink to those in line.

In his first formal news conference Thursday, Biden parried questions on a litany of topics, but he grew animated and incensed on the subject of state bills aimed at restricting voting.

Distinguishing GOP voters from their party’s elected officials, Biden said the Republican voters whom he knows “find this despicable,” even if political leaders don’t, calling the efforts “un-American” and “sick.”

“I am convinced that we’ll be able to stop this, because it is the most pernicious thing. This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle,” Biden said, adding, “I’m going to do everything in my power, along with my friends in the House and the Senate, to keep that from — from becoming the law.”

Biden also voiced his strongest challenge to the legislative filibuster, signaling that he could be persuaded to endorse dramatic changes to the Senate procedure if it impedes the critical pieces of his agenda, potentially including voting rights. The House recently passed a sweeping voting rights bill, but it has foundered in the Senate.

The president has supported a return of the “talking filibuster,” which would force senators to register their objections to legislation with an actual speech on the floor, rather than a simple notification as they do now. Yet Biden has declined to say whether he supports eliminating the 60-vote threshold to advance most bills, a critical element of the filibuster.

“We’re going to get a lot done,” Biden said. “And if we have to — if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster — then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about.”

Butler, the activist, said the right to vote is so basic to democracy that if the filibuster is an obstacle to it then the procedure must go.

“Voting is sacred. If they have to change the process to do that, that’s fine,” Butler said. “All I know is, we need the protections of voting rights, because we don’t have a democracy without the right to vote for all people. It’s urgent that we get it passed.”

The White House said Friday that Biden plans to communicate with lawmakers and advocates to press for voting rights legislation.

Still, resistance from enough Democratic senators — some on policy, others on procedure — will almost certainly prevent Senate passage of the House bill, absent changes. That legislation, called the For the People Act, establishes uniform national voting standards, overhauls campaign finance laws and outlaws partisan redistricting.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a pivotal swing vote, has outlined concerns with how that bill would be implemented, particularly in rural areas. Instead of finding a way to enact a party-line bill, Manchin has urged a bipartisan elections package.

“Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits, but will inevitably only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government,” Manchin said in a lengthy statement Thursday.

It’s far from clear, however, that Democrats and Republicans can find common ground on the issue. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) on Friday called the new law in his state a “hostile takeover of Georgia elections” and said the filibuster should not be allowed to impede voting rights.

“Our democracy is in a 911 emergency, and I’m not about to be stopped or stymied by debates about Senate rules,” Warnock told reporters in Georgia. “I respect rules . . . but no Senate rule should overrule the integrity of our democracy.”

Warnock has also pressed the issue in private, raising questions on voting rights and how the filibuster is blocking it to Biden in a caucus-wide virtual meeting with Senate Democrats and the president earlier this week, according to an official familiar with the call. Biden agreed with the freshman senator that the issue was vital and indicated, as he had in recent days, that he was open to a discussion about revising Senate rules, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private call.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki also raised concerns about the arrest of Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon (D),who was detained late Thursday after she attempted to enter Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s office during a signing ceremony for the controversial voting bill.

Videos on social media showed Cannon knocking persistently but calmly, and an activist who filmed the incident told The Washington Post that the lawmaker was in no way “banging on the door.”

“I think anyone who saw that video would have been deeply concerned by the actions that were taken by law enforcement to arrest her when she simply . . . seemed to be knocking on the door to see if she could watch a bill being signed into law,” Psaki said.

Earlier this month, Biden signed an executive order meant to tear down obstacles to voting, and the White House said Friday that it would continue to review potential administrative actions.

Vanessa Williams contributed to this report.