President Joe Biden talks to members of the press in the State Dining Room of the White House on March 2, 2021, after delivering remarks during a COVID-19 announcement. (Adam Schultz/The White House)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday in his first formal news conference since taking office blasted Republican-controlled state legislatures that are seeking to restrict voting access, labeling those attempts “sick” and “un-American.”
Biden specifically referenced proposals like one in Georgia’s state Capitol, where the House and Senate on Thursday approved a GOP-drafted bill that would overhaul early and absentee voting laws, restrict access to ballot drop boxes, and even criminalize handing out water and snacks to voters as they wait in line. The governor signed the measure Thursday night and most of its provisions go into effect on July 1.
“This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle,” Biden said, referring to laws that enforced racial segregation in the South. “This is gigantic, what they’re trying to do, and it cannot be sustained.”
Biden said he would “do everything in my power” to prevent those changes from going into effect.
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He pledged to help the U.S. Senate to pass a sweeping elections bill drafted by Democrats, which would expand voting rights and block some of the actions underway in GOP state legislatures. That bill, known as H.R. 1, passed the House in early March, but it faces an uphill battle in the evenly divided Senate, where it would need some Republican support to win approval.
Asked if there’s anything he can do beyond passing legislation like H.R. 1 to block the state-level proposals that would limit voting access, Biden replied: “The answer is yes but I’m not going to lay out a strategy in front of you and the whole world now.”
Biden said he would work on educating the American public about the proposals being shepherded through state legislatures, saying the Republicans he knows “find this despicable.”
Georgia has been the epicenter for GOP efforts to rein in voting access after finding itself in the national spotlight following last year’s presidential election, when former President Donald Trump made baseless claims of election irregularities and fraud. Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office took a high-profile stand in defense of Georgia’s election integrity after Biden won Georgia by 12,000 votes in November.
But Georgia is far from the only state seeking to tighten voting rules, raising the concerns of voting-rights advocates across the country: Arizona lawmakers are weighing measures that would purge the early voting list of people who don’t use their early ballots for two consecutive election cycles, and would require people who vote by early ballot to include proof of identification beyond the current signature system.
In Michigan, Republican lawmakers this week introduced a 39-bill package that would ban the mailing of unsolicited absentee ballot applications, prohibit pre-paid postage for absentee ballots, and limit the hours people can use ballot drop boxes.
And in Iowa, a Latino civil rights organization has filed a lawsuit over a new law signed this month that shortens the absentee voting period and adds new penalties for election officer misconduct.
The Iowa House this week also passed a bill to limit who can receive automatic restoration of voting rights.
Biden’s voting-rights comments came during a news conference that largely focused on immigration and the surge of unaccompanied minors arriving at the country’s Southern border, and the debate over whether Democrats should abolish the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires 60 votes to pass most bills.
With Democrats in control of the Senate with 50 seats and Vice President Kamala Harris as a tie-breaking vote, some Democrats say the filibuster should be eliminated so priorities like protecting voting rights can be enacted. The decision would be up to senators, but Biden’s opinions have been closely tracked and would be influential.
Biden defended his administration’s immigration policies, attributing the recent spike in migrants arriving at the border to seasonal factors as well as the unrest in Central American countries.
He also said his administration is working to more quickly contact the relatives of unaccompanied minors, but gave no timeline on when reporters will be allowed inside the most crowded facilities to see the conditions there.
As for the filibuster, Biden, a former member of the Senate, said the rule has been “abused in a gigantic way,” and that the tactic should once again require lawmakers to be physically present and speaking on the Senate floor to block a vote from proceeding.
He was asked if the filibuster is a relic of the Jim Crow era and said “Yes.”
Despite more than 542,000 deaths in the U.S. during the pandemic, the only references to COVID-19 came during Biden’s opening remarks, in which he doubled his goal for how many vaccine shots will be administered during his first 100 days in office, to 200 million doses.
Biden also had set a goal of reopening the “majority” of elementary and middle schools within that same time frame. He said Thursday that “nearly half” of those schools are open for in-person learning, and expressed confidence that the goal would be met at the end of April.
He didn’t face any questions from White House reporters on the COVID-19 pandemic, which is responsible for an average of 1,000 deaths per day and roughly 55,000 new infections per day. The death rate has been declining, but some states are seeing rising infections as many loosen restrictions on businesses and social gatherings.
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