The Morning Dispatch: Biden Takes Aim at Filibuster in Georgia
"To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed, to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights."
Happy Wednesday! University of Maryland School of Medicine researchers and surgeons earlier this week successfully transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a 57-year-old man.
That’s impressive and all, but is anyone else worried this is the first step on the path to Animal Farm?
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
Chicago Public Schools are poised to reopen for in-person instruction today after Chicago Teachers Union delegates voted 63 percent to 27 percent to suspend their remote-work action that had led the district to cancel five days of class. The union and district agreed to tweak various COVID protocols having to do with testing, contact tracing, and the conditions under which schools would return to remote learning.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said Tuesday that security forces from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization would withdraw from Kazakhstan in the next few days, claiming their “main mission”—cracking down on the violent protests of the past week—had been “successfully completed.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development announced Tuesday it will provide an additional $308 million in humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan in 2022, including food, health care, winterization programs, and logistics.
Local aid workers said yesterday that yet another drone strike was directed at Ethiopia’s Tigray region on Monday, this one killing 17 people—reportedly mostly women—working in a flour mill. The White House said Monday President Biden had spoken with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, “expressing concern” about airstrikes targeting civilians.
Days after potential successor Sen. John Thune announced he will run for reelection, Sen. Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday he plans to run for another term as Senate Republican leader, a position he’s held since 2007.
District Judge James Boasberg ruled Tuesday that the Federal Trade Commission’s revised antitrust lawsuit against Meta (Facebook) may proceed, several months after he dismissed a similar case against the social media platform. “The Commission continues to allege that Facebook has long had a monopoly in the market for [personal social networking] services and that it has unlawfully maintained that monopoly,” he wrote. “The facts alleged this time around to fortify those theories, however, are far more robust and detailed than before.”
Democrat Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick defeated Republican Jason Mariner on Tuesday in the special election to replace the late Rep. Alcee Hastings in Florida’s 20th Congressional District. Once Cherfilus-McCormick is sworn in, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will return to 222-212.
Biden Goes Down to Georgia
“The president of the United States traveled to Georgia, made a series of false claims about the electoral process, and called on Congress to do something he knew full well it would not do.”
That sentence was true in January 2021. And after yesterday, it’s true in January 2022 as well.
“Every senator—Democrat, Republican, and independent—will have to declare where they stand, not just for the moment, but for the ages,” President Joe Biden said in a fiery speech at the Atlanta University Center Consortium on Tuesday. “Will you stand against voter suppression? Yes or no? … Will you stand against election subversion? Yes or no? Will you stand for democracy? Yes or no?”
As we noted last week, Senate Democrats—having failed to get the Build Back Better Act across the finish line—are turning their focus to federal elections reform, with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promising to take steps toward passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Freedom to Vote Act “on or before” January 17. The former would restore a provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that mandated certain states and localities to obtain permission from the Department of Justice or a federal judge before changing their election laws. The latter is an updated version of H.R. 1, Democrats’ omnibus bill that would federalize elections in the United States by establishing a laundry list of requirements for states on voter registration, mail-in balloting, early voting, voter roll maintenance, and more.
Unlike Build Back Better, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—the typical thorns in Democrats’ side—actually support the two proposals. But with Republicans in near lockstep opposition, the bills’ only chance of becoming law is all 50 Democrats agreeing to abolish the legislative filibuster in its entirety. Manchin and Sinema—as well as Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly, Jon Tester, Jeanne Shaheen, Chris Coons, and possibly others—remain wary of invoking the “nuclear option,” which has already backfired on the party once with respect to judicial nominees.
Biden too used to count himself in this camp, as recently as last year. In 2005, he declared in a Senate floor speech—a speech he deemed “one of the most important” of his career—that doing away with the filibuster via the nuclear option would “eviscerate the Senate,” “upset the Constitutional design,” and do “a disservice to the country.”
But on Tuesday, the president not only reversed his own position, but tacitly compared the Democrats and Republicans who continue to support the filibuster—and the Republicans who oppose his party’s electoral reforms—to segregationists.
“Today I’m making it clear: To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed, to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights,” Biden said to raucous applause. “The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation’s history. … Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice? I know where I stand.”
“I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered?” he continued. “At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
It was a speech Democratic activists—frustrated by a lack of legislative progress in Congress—had been begging Biden to give for months, and some progressive voting rights groups even boycotted the president’s remarks, arguing they were too little, too late. Stacey Abrams—Georgia’s Democratic nominee for governor in 2018, who is running again this year—didn’t attend, citing a scheduling conflict. (Biden told reporters he and Abrams are “on the same page” and “everything is fine.”)
The president chose to deliver his speech in Georgia for a reason. It’s the state where, in 2018, Abrams refused to concede, despite losing to Republican Brian Kemp by more than 50,000 votes. It’s the state where, in 2020 and early 2021, former President Donald Trump made increasingly unhinged voter fraud claims and called Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to say he “just want[s] to find 11,780 votes.” It’s the state where, in 2022, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock will attempt to fend off a yet-to-be-determined GOP challenger, and Abrams will make another run at the governor’s mansion.
But perhaps most importantly, it’s the state that passed Senate Bill 202 last year. “To [Georgia Republicans], too many people voting in a democracy is a problem. So they’re putting up obstacles,” Biden said yesterday. “Dropping your ballots off to secure drop boxes—it’s safe, it’s convenient, and you get more people to vote. So they’re limiting the number of drop boxes and the hours you can use them.”
“Their endgame? To turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion—something states can respect or ignore,” he said. “Jim Crow 2.0 is about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion. It’s no longer about who gets to vote; it’s about making it harder to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote and whether your vote counts at all.”
Biden explicitly assured listeners at two different points yesterday he was not being hyperbolic, but nearly everything the president said about Georgia’s election law was missing context, an exaggeration, or outright false. As a reminder, we read all 95 pages of SB 202 last April and tried our best to translate it into plain English:
For starters, the bill actually expands voting access for most Georgians, mandating precincts hold at least 17 days of early voting—including two Saturdays, with Sundays optional—leading up to the election. Voting locations during this period must be open for at least eight hours, and can operate between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. Several states (including Biden’s home state of Delaware, which will not implement it until 2022) do not currently allow any in-person early voting, and plenty, like New Jersey, offer far fewer than 17 days.
Despite Biden saying the bill implements absentee voting restrictions that “effectively deny” the franchise to “countless” voters, SB 202 leaves in place no-excuse absentee voting with a few tweaks. It tightens the window to apply for an absentee ballot to “just” 67 days, and mandates applications—which can now be completed online—be received by election officials at least 11 days before an election to ensure a ballot can be mailed and returned by Election Day. The bill requires Georgia’s secretary of state to make a blank absentee ballot application available online, but prohibits government agencies from mailing one to voters unsolicited—and requires third-party groups doing so to include a variety of disclaimers.
Rather than signature matching—which is time-intensive for election officials—voters will verify their identity in absentee ballot applications by including the identification number on their driver’s license or voter identification card, which is free. If a Georgian has neither, he or she can, pursuant to Georgia Code Section 21-2-417, include a photocopy or digital picture of a “current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document” that includes his or her name and address. When mailing back their ballots, voters must print their driver’s license number (or the last four digits of their social security number) on an inner envelope. (An August 2016 Gallup survey found photo ID requirements for voting were overwhelmingly popular: 80 percent of voters supported them, including 77 percent of nonwhite voters.) SB 202 also codifies ballot drop boxes into law; Georgia added them for the first time in 2020 as a pandemic measure, and the law now stipulates that there be one for every 100,000 registered voters or advance voting locations in a county, whichever is smaller.
It’s true that Trump sought to steal the 2020 election by retroactively disenfranchising millions of voters, and that a not-insignificant share of the Republican Party supported his efforts in doing so. It’s also almost assuredly true that, for some GOP members of Georgia’s legislature, Trump’s lies—and the misguided notion, shared by both parties, that higher voter turnout automatically benefits Democrats—influenced their decision to tighten up the state’s election laws. A few state lawmakers, for example, proposed eliminating no-excuse absentee voting entirely and prohibiting early voting on Sundays, a move that was widely seen as targeting “souls to the polls” voter drives at black churches.
But lawmakers cut those provisions from the final bill, which—aside from a clause prohibiting outside groups from distributing money, gifts, food, or drinks within 25 feet of voters standing in line to vote (polling places can make self-service water receptacles available)—is astoundingly mainstream relative to the amount of negative attention it has received. Some of its changes—allowing election workers to begin processing absentee ballots earlier to avoid reporting delays, for example—will actively improve the administration of future elections. And if a few marginal tweaks help restore Republicans voters’ record-low trust in the democratic process, that’s an added bonus.
“This over-the-top hyperbole, it’s just dangerous,” said Gabe Sterling, the GOP election official in Georgia who forcefully pushed back against Trump’s voter fraud claims following the 2020 campaign. “I think some people who are parroting [criticisms of Georgia’s election law] think they’re telling the truth. But there’s many people who know that they’re not telling the truth, because they need this hyperbole, and they need this issue.”
“None of it is helpful,” he told The Dispatch Tuesday night, detailing problems the state has had finding and retaining election workers. “Who wants the hassle? Who wants to have themselves stalked, or be in the middle of all this stuff? … If they’re in a Republican county, no one wants to be called a racist for just working on an election.”
In his speech yesterday, Biden singled out Sterling’s boss, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, as being one of the “courageous officials” who upheld the law and prevented Trump’s plot to steal the 2020 election from succeeding. But Raffensperger told The Dispatch yesterday Biden is pulling America further apart by “leaning into his far-left-wing base” and “living in the past” in making his Jim Crow 2.0 allegations.
Former President Trump spent the months leading up to November 2020 preemptively seeding mistrust in the democratic process, and he carried that cynicism to its logical conclusion on January 6. His continued commitment to those lies—and the Republican Party’s continued commitment to him—present a real threat to American democracy. But in rejecting bipartisan proposals to reform the Electoral Count Act—where that threat is most acute—Democratic leaders have thus far demonstrated they’d rather have the fight than a solution.
President Biden is unlikely to mimic his predecessor’s post-election antics if the 2024 race doesn’t go his way. But his remarks yesterday—delivered in service of a pair of bills he knows are not going to pass the Senate—were more Trumpian than his defenders will care to admit. Sen. Mitt Romney, no MAGA acolyte, argued as much on the Senate floor yesterday. “President Biden goes down the same tragic road taken by President Trump, casting doubt on the reliability of American elections,” he lamented. “This is a sad, sad day. I expected more of President Biden, who came into office with the stated goal of bringing the country together.”
Worth Your Time
A question we often get from readers is, “Is there anybody doing what The Dispatch tries to do—fact-based reporting and analysis that ignores partisan pressures—but on the center-left?” On Tuesday, Josh Barro—former editor at Business Insider—launched a newsletter, Very Serious, that we hope will fit the bill. “The conversation that gets erroneously called a ‘national conversation’—conducted among select journalists, operatives, activists and academics—is essentially a conversation by and for people who supported Elizabeth Warren. It reflects the values and preferences and linguistic quirks of one minority part of one political party’s coalition,” he writes in his introductory post. “My beef with this subculture isn’t quite the usual one, and that’s why this newsletter is going to be different. I don’t feel oppressed by the subculture. But I do think it has caused certain influential people to become badly misinformed in ways that have been damaging to the interests of both the press and the Democratic Party.” If that sounds like an interesting perspective to you, be sure to sign up here!
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Toeing the Company Line
An out-of-context video clip featuring CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has rocketed around the internet in recent days, with partisans attempting to downplay the pandemic by claiming she said 75 percent of people dying from COVID had at least four comorbidities. But Walensky was referring to COVID deaths among the vaccinated, as Alec points out in his latest Dispatch Fact Check.
In Tuesday’s Uphill, Haley and Charlotte take a closer look at Republicans’ legislative push to force the Biden administration’s hand on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. At the heart of the debate: Should the United States impose sanctions as soon as possible, or keep its powder dry and tie them to a potential re-invasion of Ukraine?
In this week’s Sweep, Audrey checks in on the GOP Senate primary in Alabama, and Sarah takes a look at the politics of President Biden’s pit stop in Georgia. “Why did he go?” Sarah asks. “Georgia is going to be the epicenter of the 2022 midterms—a Senate race and a gubernatorial race in a red state that Joe Biden won. Perhaps the White House is willing to face some bad headlines now because it knows Biden won’t be there again between now and November but it wants to head off the October headline, ‘Joe Biden is so unpopular he stayed away from Georgia all year.’”
In his Tuesday French Press (🔒), David responds to a recent critique from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “Because America is a majority Christian nation, American progress has depended on Christian action,” he writes. “But also because America is a majority Christian nation, American oppression has depended on Christian action as well. And a movement that’s disproportionately white and Christian needs to remember that sobering fact.”
Let Us Know
Do you think bipartisan trust in the integrity of our democratic process can be restored? What should responsible lawmakers in both parties be doing to make sure that happens?
Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).