Biden decries ‘assault’ on voting rights in the city where ‘we the people’ began

President Joe Biden delivers a speech on voting rights at the National Constitution Center, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Joe Biden delivers a speech on voting rights at the National Constitution Center, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

There’s a reason Joe Biden decided to make a speech about voting rights in Philly.

Philadelphia, Biden said in his address at the National Constitution Center Tuesday afternoon, is “the city and the place where the story of ‘we the people’ began.”

In perhaps his strongest-ever statement about voter suppression and election integrity, Biden told the crowd at the Constitution Center that there is “an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections.”

“Make no mistake,” he added, “bullies and merchants of fear, peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country.”

President Joe Biden delivers a speech on voting rights at the National Constitution Center, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Like in many swing states, elected officials in Pennsylvania are embroiled in a partisan tug-of-war between Republicans trying to tighten or restrict voting laws, and Democrats hoping to make voting easier.

“This year alone,” Biden noted in his speech, “17 states have enacted — not just proposed, but enacted — 28 new laws” tightening election processes.

The battle is also playing out on the national level around the For the People Act.

Biden on Tuesday unequivocally backed the sweeping measure to overhaul U.S. elections, telling lawmakers passing it is a “national imperative.” He disappointed some progressives and good government advocates, however, by not mentioning the legislative mechanism keeping it from becoming law: the Senate filibuster.

The bill would require states with voter I.D. requirements to also accept sworn statements certifying identity, and guarantee early and mail voting options. It would institute a slew of changes intended to put guardrails on campaign spending, like requiring new fundraising disclosures and putting more limits on campaign contributions from foreign donors.

Legislation passed the House in March, but has run against the wall of a Republican filibuster in the U.S. Senate. Democrats’ options are few beyond getting rid of the filibuster — something beyond Biden’s control.

As the president spoke inside the Constitution Center, where the audience included top local officials like Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Philly Mayor Jim Kenney, a crowd gathered outside. They demonstrated in favor of the For the People Act, chanting for Biden to use his bully pulpit to try and sway the few Senate Democratic holdouts to end the filibuster. Some were with Pennsylvania’s chapter of the good government group Common Cause, some were with local chapters of Indivisible, an anti-Trump organization.

College students Maddy McAlexander, (left) and June Park (right) joined a voting rights rally during President Joe Biden’s visit to Philadelphia on July 13, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

June Park and Maddy McAlexander, 19- and 20-year old college students home in the Philly suburbs for the summer, said they’re doing a “summer of action,” and a big part of that has involved organizing to abolish the filibuster.

“I think that one of the greatest challenges to democracy right now is voter suppression, and ending the filibuster is a step toward ending that,” McAlexander said. “He needs to take a stronger stance on that.”

Voters in Philadelphia rallied in support of the For The People Act outside the National Constitution Center during a speech given by President Joe Biden. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Park added that she’s run into issues with late mail-in ballots firsthand. For college students, she said. “Mail-in ballots are a huge thing, so I believe that we need to protect the sanctity of mail-in ballots. That’s a huge part of [the For the People Act] that I support.”

Republicans and ‘the integrity of the vote’

As national efforts to change voting laws stall, Republicans are making much more progress with their own changes in states they control.

In Pennsylvania, the GOP-controlled legislature passed a broad bill that would have made some bipartisan adjustments — adding in-person early voting by 2025, giving counties more time to count ballots ahead of Election Day — but also included key provisions Democrats said they couldn’t stomach: requirements for ID to be presented at the polls in order to vote, tighter deadlines for voter registration and absentee ballot applications, and a new stipulation that poll-watchers from both political parties must observe ballot drop boxes.

Gov. Tom Wolf acted as Democrats’ bulwark in that case, and vetoed the bill. Harrisburg Republicans are now pushing to pass a potentially stricter voter ID requirement via constitutional amendment, a mechanism the governor has no control over.

The flurry of activity stems from Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in the leadup to and aftermath of his November 2020 loss to Biden.

Trust in the validity of that election is, according to polling, heavily influenced by partisan affiliation, as are voters’ election-related priorities. While common ground remains — most voters support some form of ID requirement at the polls — Democrats have indicated they’re much more eager to ensure access to voting, while Republicans preferred making sure ineligible people don’t vote.

Rebekah Ray joined a voting rights rally during President Joe Biden’s visit to Philadelphia on July 13, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The false impression some voters have that the 2020 election was flawed is the explicit underpinning of current GOP efforts to tighten voting laws, Pennsylvania Republicans say.

“Obviously you can’t have a democracy if people don’t believe in the integrity of the vote,” State Sen. Jake Corman recently told WHYY. “Whether the last election was — you know, we can argue that forever and I’m not taking a side on that — my point is moving forward, we should put all the security in it.”

 

Donald Trump: GOP kingmaker

Election security, and some people’s belief that current systems are insufficient, has also become a key issue in the lead-up to Pennsylvania’s major 2022 elections.

With Gov. Wolf hitting his term limit and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey retiring, both of the commonwealth’s major statewide seats are wide open.

On the Republican side, most of the candidates have been leaning into a key objective: Get support from Trump, and do it by appealing to the former president’s obsession with proving that his defeat was unfair.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, a likely candidate for governor, is the contender who has spent arguably the most time and political capital tying himself to Trump, and to false claims of widespread 2020 fraud. He was present at the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington D.C., and recently spearheaded an attempt to audit the election.

Mastriano is also taking an unusual step in trying to use the typically-inactive Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee, which he chairs, to potentially subpoena election material from election boards in several counties, including Philadelphia.

Former U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania and unsuccessful 2018 U.S. Senate candidate Lou Barletta has also tied himself to the former president.

Attention swirled recently around likely contender Bill McSwain, former U.S. Attorney for Pennsylvania’s Southeastern District, whose efforts to court Trump became public — thanks to Trump himself.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference Sunday, Trump told his audience former Attorney General Bill Barr had instructed an unnamed U.S. Attorney not to investigate voter fraud allegations. He later released a letter McSwain had sent him detailing the instruction — though not what the allegations were, nor whether they were credible.

Barr later disputed McSwain’s account of their communications, telling the Washington Post that any suggestion he tried to keep McSwain from investigating alleged fraud was “just false,” and that the former U.S. Attorney was just trying to placate Trump.

The letter from McSwain was dated June of this year, eight months after the election and six months after he left his position as U.S. Attorney. It concluded with McSwain telling Trump he is “uniquely positioned” to defeat Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic frontrunner for governor, and would “be honored to have [Trump’s] support.” McSwain also said his first priority as governor would be to tighten Pennsylvania’s election laws.

Outside Biden’s Philly speech, Blaine Lewis Thompson, an organizer with Common Cause’s Pennsylvania chapter, said all this has contributed to his strong belief that voting rights are clearly the biggest issue the commonwealth, and the country, needs to grapple with.

Blaine Lewis-Thompson helped organize a voting rights rally during President Joe Biden’s visit to Philadelphia on July 13, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“The For the People Act is a way to just erase it all on a federal level,” he said. He added, he thinks Biden’s mandate from progressives like him is simple: “Show that he is going to do everything in his power to make sure the act is passed.”

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