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Voting activists in Georgia tell Biden ahead of visit: Don't come without a plan to pass legislation

A man receives an "I'm a Georgia Voter" sticker after casting a ballot in Georgia's Primary Election on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
A man receives an "I'm a Georgia Voter" sticker after casting a ballot in Georgia's Primary Election on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Voting rights activists are demanding more action and fewer words from the White House ahead of President Biden's visit to Georgia this week.

Activists want Congress to pass national voting rights legislation. Republican-led state legislatures throughout the country — including Georgia — have passed laws that restrict voting access. And this week Georgia’s legislature is meeting to discuss more restrictions.

James Woodall, a public policy associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights, is one activist who signed a letter last week asking Biden and Vice President Harris not to come to Georgia if they’re only going to give speeches.

The former president of the NAACP in Georgia says Biden and Harris are coming to Georgia the day after the state General Assembly reconvenes to decide on legislation like banning ballot drop boxes. Beyond making speeches, voting rights activists in the state want the White House to take immediate action against voter suppression nearly a year after restrictive voting law Senate Bill 202 passed in Georgia.

"We have run out of time," he says. "We need them to say the right things. Yes, we need them to be on message and have these kinds of speeches. But really, what we need is actual legislation being signed into law."

Interview Highlights

On Biden's predicament with a 50-50 split in the Senate and not every Democrat on board with his voting legislation

"Well, that’s exactly what the president needs to say then. Outside of that, I don’t know what else he could say. Are they going to demand to restore the Senate and vote yes on a filibuster carve out? Are they going to demand that that happen this week since we’re desperately running out of time? Will you specifically call out Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to stand on the right side of history? We have yet to see the president and the vice president and the White House, quite frankly, be very forceful in calling out the people who stand in the way of voting rights. Democracy is at a very interesting point in which if we don’t see that kind of forceful action taken, then democracy will not exist for none of us. And so regardless of what challenges that they face, that is what they were elected to do. They ran on being able to navigate the intricacies of the Senate. They’ve been in there for decades. And so now is their time to demonstrate their expertise, if you will, on being able to navigate those waters. We did our part."

On the back and forth between parties on voting rights

"I would urge us to not look at this in terms of partizanship because when you look at the disenfranchisement of voters all throughout this nation and even here in Georgia specifically, it is persons on both sides of the aisle who are being or both sides of the question who are being disenfranchised. When you look at laws like here in Georgia, where we have a moral turpitude clause, where individuals who are incarcerated do no longer get the ability to vote, or you talk about rural voters having access to the ballot box, you’re talking about county election officials being removed from their post simply because they are one party or the other. You’re talking about counties like Lincoln County, Georgia, which is removing six out of seven precincts, which majority of them are African-American majority precincts. And so this isn’t a partisan issue. And I guarantee you once there is a Republican leading the administration, there’s going to be similar concerns and we’ve seen that. And so what we’re asking for, what we’re demanding right now is to deal with voter suppression on a county, state and federal level. Stop putting a show on and get to work because they should not be here in Atlanta. There’s no voting happening here in Atlanta for the federal legislation. They need to be in D.C. and pass that this week."

On the necessity of passing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021

"We’ve seen a conglomerate of bills all throughout this nation that really disenfranchises voters of all ilks in all backgrounds. You have automatic voter registration. You have gerrymandered maps. You have the ability for like here in Georgia, the secretary of state no longer being the chair or a voting member of the state election board. You have so many things that are just quite frankly, outrageous that really constitute a focus on voter suppression and really remind us of the legacy of Jim Crow. It’s been almost 10 years since the Voting Rights Act was gutted by Shelby V. Holder. The decision in the Shelby v. Holder case at the Supreme Court and we have seen no federal response that that formula that included many of the states that were implementing Jim Crow policies back in the 20th century are still engaged in voter suppression. We’re seeing voter purges literally every single year. And again, there is no response. And so these two pieces of legislation are necessary and there is no compromise that we have seen that would be able to address them outside of these two pieces of legislation."

On the proposed legislation in Georgia that would allow only citizens to vote

"Every human being deserves to be represented in this country because they’re all paying taxes and they’re all part of our community. And to signal that there are non-citizens voting here in Georgia is just simply not true. Georgia’s law is already clear, and what we’re seeing are very real and very scary and very troubling signals to, you know, racist vigilantes to be able to continue to enact violence upon our communities, regardless if they are Indigenous communities, regardless of if they are immigrant communities. And that is something that we take very seriously. And instead of, you know, giving air and space to those very racist talking points, what we’re at simply directing our communities to ensure is that we protect each other and that we participate in this thing called democracy."

On Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's investigation into ballot harvesting in the state. Georgia law state that only family members or caretakers can collect and hand in someone’s ballot.

“We have yet to see any result come from the Georgia secretary of state’s investigations. He is required by law to investigate them, but nothing we have done is illegal. Nothing we have done is unethical, and all we seek to do is ensure that our communities are both organized and participating in democracy. We have seen the legislature try and attempt to criminalize us participating in democracy, and so we will continue to fight against every sense of their motivation to criminalize the work that we do because at the end of the day, it challenges their power in so. We have done nothing wrong. We’ve done nothing illegal and we’re going to continue to stand on that claim.”

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.