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Joe Biden signs order to promote US voting rights, access

Demonstrators hold signs as they march for voting rights on Election Day in Graham, North Carolina, on November 3, 2020 [Jonathan Drake-Reuters]

United States President Joe Biden has signed an executive order that aims to make it easier for Americans to vote, as Republicans in several states have sought to impose more voting restrictions following the 2020 presidential election.

The order, shared by the White House on Sunday, directs US federal agencies to “consider ways to expand citizens’ opportunities to register to vote and to obtain information about, and participate in, the electoral process”.

It also calls for federal agencies to provide more information about voting to the public, overhaul the federal voter registration website Vote.gov, and promote and expand multilingual voter registration and election information.

“It is the policy of my Administration to promote and defend the right to vote for all Americans who are legally entitled to participate in elections,” it reads.

Biden’s order comes on the 56th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” when state troopers and police attacked civil rights marchers in 1965 in Selma, Alabama, who were protesting against racial discrimination at the voting booth.

Those events were a key moment in the US civil rights movement and led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination in voting.

“The legacy of the march in Selma is that while nothing can stop a free people from exercising their most sacred power as a citizen, there are those who will do everything they can to take that power away,” Biden said in pre-taped remarks to the Martin & Coretta Scott King Unity Breakfast released on Sunday.

New restrictions

Republicans in several US states are pursuing new voting restrictions after former President Donald Trump falsely alleged that the November 2020 presidential election was stolen from him due to widespread voter fraud.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which tracks voting legislation around the country, reported that as of February 19, “legislators in 43 states have carried over, prefiled, or introduced more than 250 bills that would make it harder to vote”.

That is “over seven times the number of restrictive bills as compared to roughly this time last year”, the centre said, and the bills “primarily seek to limit mail voting and impose stricter voter ID requirements”.

The US Supreme Court last week heard arguments in a case over two such restrictions in the state of Arizona, where officials have cited the need to fight voter fraud to defend rules that weaken the Voting Rights Act.

One of the measures made it a crime to provide another person’s completed early ballot to election officials, with the exception of family members or caregivers, while the other disqualified ballots cast in-person at a precinct other than the one to which a voter has been assigned.
A lower Arizona court had ruled the restrictions disproportionately burdened Black, Hispanic and Native American voters.

Last month, Republican Florida Senator Ron DeSantis also proposed an array of voting changes, while state legislators have introduced legislation that makes it harder to vote by mail.

Restoring voting rights

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are seeking to push through a massive overhaul of US voting and ethics regulations.

The Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives passed House Resolution 1, also known as the For The People Act, on Wednesday despite staunch Republican opposition.

The measure, which will now go to the US Senate, would restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strike down hurdles to voting and bring transparency to a murky campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to anonymously bankroll political causes.

In a statement marking the “Bloody Sunday” events, Democratic Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Alabama also said it is critical to pass a bill she first introduced in 2019 that aims to restore weakened portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“While my heart breaks knowing that John will not lead this year’s commemorative march [in Selma], my hope is that we will rededicate ourselves to his life’s work by restoring the full protections of the Voting Rights Act,” said Sewell, referring to late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.

“As we’ve recently seen in state legislatures across this nation, voter suppression is alive and well. That is why we must pass H.R. 4, The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, to ensure all Americans can fully participate in our democracy.”

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