WASHINGTON - U.S. President Joe Biden directed federal agencies Sunday to take modest steps to promote voting access even as a major congressional fight looms over balloting rights across the country.
Biden ordered the government agencies to expand access to voter registration and election information and told the agency heads to devise plans to give several million federal employees time off to vote or volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers.
The U.S. leader signed the executive order on the 56th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the 1965 incident in which about 600 civil rights activists were beaten by Alabama state troopers as they tried to march for voting rights in the small city of Selma. The attack was a turning point in the civil rights movement in the United States and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later in 1965.
"Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have it counted," Biden said in pre-taped remarks aired at Sunday's Martin and Coretta King Unity Breakfast. "If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let the people vote." This year's breakfast, at Wallace Community College, was billed as a drive-in event because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden's action follows last week's passage in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives of sweeping voting rights measures that would set national standards for how elections are conducted in the U.S., overriding a disparate set of rules that vary widely throughout the 50 states.
The measure cleared the House on a near party-line 220-210 vote, but Republicans broadly oppose it. In the evenly divided Senate, with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, Democrats supporting the legislation will likely need at least 10 Republican votes to end any filibuster against it.
With the pandemic sweeping the country last year, numerous states eased voting rules so people could cast ballots before the official November 3 Election Day or by absentee ballots without stating any reason.
But after Biden won the election, Republican lawmakers in states Biden carried are now trying to enact legislation that would curb voting access for future elections, such as by banning voting on the Sundays leading up to Election Day, when Black churches often organize "Souls to the Polls" events after services. Some of the proposals would limit early voting or mail-in balloting. More than 250 restrictive voting proposals have been introduced in 43 states.
The House-approved measure, however, would do the opposite, codifying national rules that would require automatic voter registration when people register for other government identification, such as a driver's license. Early voting would be required for at least 15 days before Election Day.
Independent commissions, not made up of lawmakers, would draw boundaries for legislative districts to prevent either party from drawing districts to their advantage. The names of political donors would have to be disclosed. Presidential candidates would have to disclose their tax returns, which Biden's immediate predecessor, Donald Trump, never did although he said he would.
Democrats say the bill will help curb attempts to limit voting in the U.S., while Republicans say it is an unwanted federal interference in the traditional state-by-state control over U.S. elections.
In his Sunday remarks, Biden said, "In 2020 - our very democracy on the line - even in the midst of a pandemic - more Americans voted than ever before," more than 159 million people.
Even so, Biden said, "Instead of celebrating this powerful demonstration of voting - we have seen an unprecedented insurrection in 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."
Hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to upend Biden's victory as lawmakers were certifying his win.
The rioters smashed windows, ransacked congressional offices and scuffled with police in mayhem that left five dead, including a Capitol Police officer. More than 300 of the rioters have been arrested as the investigation continues.