In this March 7, 1965, file photo, a state trooper swings a billy club at John Lewis, right foreground, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala. The March 7, 2021, Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee will be the first without the towering presence of Lewis, as well as the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Rev. C.T. Vivian and attorney Bruce Boynton, who all died in 2020. (AP Photo/File)
By Aamer Madhani
The Associated Press
A new executive order from President Joe Biden directs federal agencies to take a series of steps to promote voting access, a move that comes as congressional Democrats press for a sweeping voting and elections bill to counter efforts to restrict voting access.
His plan was announced during a recorded address on the 56th commemoration of “Bloody Sunday,” the 1965 incident in which some 600 civil rights activists were viciously beaten by state troopers as they tried to march for voting rights in Selma, Ala.
“Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have it counted,” Biden said in his remarks to Sunday’s Martin and Coretta King Unity Breakfast before signing the order. “If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let the people vote.”
Biden’s order includes several modest provisions. It directs federal agencies to expand access to voter registration and election information, calls on the heads of agencies to come up with plans to give federal employees time off to vote or volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers, and pushes an overhaul of the government’s Vote.gov website.
Democrats are attempting to solidify support for House Resolution 1, which touches on virtually every aspect of the electoral process. It was approved March 3 on a near party-line vote, 220-210.
The voting rights bill includes provisions to 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.
Democrats say the bill will help stifle voter suppression attempts, while Republicans have cast the bill as unwanted federal interference in states’ authority to conduct their own elections.
The bill’s fate is far from certain in the closely divided Senate. Conservative groups have undertaken a $5 million campaign to try persuade moderate Senate Democrats to oppose rule changes needed to pass the measure.
With his executive order, Biden is looking to turn the spotlight on the issue and is using the somber commemoration of Bloody Sunday to make the case that much is at stake.
Bloody Sunday proved to be a turning point in the civil rights movement that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Similarly, Biden is hoping the Jan. 6 sacking of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Donald Trump mob will prove to be a clarion call for Congress to take action to improve voter protections.
“In 2020 — with our very democracy on the line — even in the midst of a pandemic – more Americans voted than ever before,” Biden said. “Yet instead of celebrating this powerful demonstration of voting — we saw an unprecedented insurrection on our Capitol and a brutal attack on our democracy on January 6th. A never-before-seen effort to ignore, undermine and undo the will of the people.”
Biden’s also paid tribute to the late civil rights giants Rev. C.T. Vivian, Rev. Joseph Lowery and Rep. John Lewis. All played critical roles in the 1965 organizing efforts in Selma and all died in within the past year.