WASHINGTON, Jan 11 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden will travel to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace of Atlanta on Tuesday to jump-start stalled efforts to reform U.S. voting rights, after some states passed new laws that activists say will deter Black voters from going to the polls.
Biden, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, will speak at Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College, two historically Black schools, as Democrats gird themselves for tough 2022 congressional elections that could strip them of their majority and the chance to change federal voting laws.
Many civil rights activists say Biden should have done more during his first year in office to push for reforms, and some, including Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, won’t attend his speech. Biden told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that he spoke to Abrams this morning, and that they got their scheduling mixed up but are “on the same page.”
The speech will be Biden’s second in as many weeks warning about the health of democracy in the United States. On Jan. 6, he targeted former President Donald Trump’s “web of lies” about the 2020 election, blaming his Republican predecessor for the deadly attacks on the U.S. Capitol a year before.
Trump continues to say that the 2020 election was stolen by Biden’s Democrats through voter fraud, despite recounts and investigations that found no evidence to back the claim. Since then, Republican lawmakers in 19 states have passed dozens of laws making it harder to vote. Critics say these measures disproportionately affect minorities.
Biden wants to build public support for proposed reforms to strengthen voting rights, particularly the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Both have so far withered under opposition from Republicans, who argue they would impose questionable national standards on local elections.
“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation,” Biden plans to say Tuesday, according to excerpted remarks provided by the White House.
“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 United States Senate stand?”
“History is going to judge you,” he told reporters Tuesday, when asked about the speech.
Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday: “Leading Democrats say they want to break the Senate because of a sinister anti-voting plot that is sweeping America. Of course this is totally fake. It does not exist.”
Biden will be joined in Atlanta by Bernice King and Martin Luther King III, two of the slain civil rights leader’s children, as well as top civil rights activists, including Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton, NAACP President Derrick Johnson and National Urban League President Marc Morial.
But some advocacy groups have been frustrated with a lack of progress and will boycott the president’s visit.
“We, along with other Georgia-based groups, told the president this is not the time and that we don’t need a photo op,” said April England-Albright, legal director for Black Voters Matter in Atlanta. “There has not been any real movement around voting rights legislation.”
Representatives for Abrams could not be immediately reached for comment, although she backed Biden’s efforts in a post on Twitter on Monday.
“The fight for voting rights takes persistence,” wrote Abrams, who narrowly lost the 2018 gubernatorial election. “Thank you, @POTUS, for refusing to relent until the work is finished. Welcome back to Georgia where we get good done.”
Georgia was a battleground state in the 2020 election, and Democrats won two crucial U.S. Senate seats in runoff contests in January 2021 that gave them effective control of the chamber. Later in the year, the Republican-led state legislature approved sweeping voting restrictions. The U.S. Justice Department sued, saying the law infringes the rights of Black voters.
King, who agitated for voting reforms and civil rights in the then-segregated South, was assassinated in 1968 and is remembered with a national U.S. holiday that will fall on Jan. 17 this year. Democrats have set the holiday as a deadline for action on voting rights.
Biden, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other top Democrats have for months been honing a strategy to pass bills that would expand early voting and strengthen federal oversight in states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls, according to people familiar with the matter.
Biden and Democrats “believe that passing federal legislation is a national imperative,” a White House official said.
The president will support changing filibuster rules that currently require 60 senators to support most legislation, the White House has said, but those changes do not have the support of all Democratic lawmakers.
Amid the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, McConnell this month signaled interest in changing the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 law that allows members of Congress to dispute presidential election results. But Democrats have said such reforms do not ensure voting rights.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Merdie Nzanga, Richard Cowan, Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey; Editing by Heather Timmons, Cynthia Osterman, Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis)