‘The Big lie is just that, a big lie’: In Philly, Biden calls for concerted effort to fight assaults on voting rights

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President Joe Biden delivers a speech on voting rights at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on Tuesday, 7/13/21 (PBS NewsHour screengrab)

By Nick Field, Stephen Caruso, and Marley Parish

Returning to the state that handed him the White House, President Joe Biden made a passionate plea Tuesday for Americans to rise up and protect their voting rights from a series of restrictive measures pushed by Republicans in Washington and in state capitols nationwide.   

“It’s up to all of us to protect that right – it is the test of our time,” Biden said during his appearance at the National Constitution Center, where he was joined by such political allies as Gov. Tom Wolf and civil rights advocates such as the Rev. Al Sharpton.

In a brief, but fiery, address, Biden cited three major threats to Americans’ right to vote, saying the nation faced the most dire threat to its democracy since the Civil War.

“That’s not hyperbole. Since the Civil War — the Confederates never breached the Capitol as the insurrectionists did on Jan. 6,” Biden said. “I’m not saying this to alarm you, I’m saying it because you should be alarmed.” 

The first is the wave of measures from Republican state legislators that would undermine voters rights to have their ballot cast and counted. The second is the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, weakening the Voting Rights Act. The third is the effort by former President Donald Trump and other Republicans to question the results of the 2020 election, which sparked the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“The Big Lie is just that — a big lie” Biden said of the movement to deny the 2020 results.

“In America, if you lose, you accept the results. You follow the Constitution. You try again. You don’t call facts ‘fake’ just because you’re unhappy,” he said.

To counter these three major threats, Biden called for the enactment of two, sweeping pieces of legislation: the “For the People Act” as well as the “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”

The former would “help end voter suppression in the states, get dark money out of politics, give voice to the people at the grassroots level, create fair district maps and end partisan gerrymandering,” he explained. “We must pass the For the People Act. It’s a national imperative. We must also fight for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore and expand voting protections to protect [against] voter suppression.” 

In addition to this legislative approach, Biden also noted that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland will challenge these new Republican efforts in the courts. 

“The 21st century Jim Crow is real. It’s unrelenting. And we’re going to challenge it vigorously,” the president pledged.

Biden called for a coalition of “advocates, students, faith leaders, labor leaders and business executives” to fight back against this assault. 

While never explicitly mentioning his predecessor, the president pointedly proclaimed that he was sworn to fight both foreign and domestic threats. 

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

In Pennsylvania — a swing state with split control of state government — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf recently vetoed a GOP bill that would have increased voter verification requirements, including expanding when voters have to show identification, and mandating signature verification for mail-in ballots.

The bill also would have moved back the deadline to request a mail-in ballot by eight days, restricted ballot drop off boxes, and given counties time to process mailed ballots before election day.

Republicans, many of whom signed the December letter to Congress objecting to Pennsylvania’s electoral college results, said the bill would have increased faith in state election results.

Research on voter identification laws, however, hasn’t found that such statutes increase voters’ trust in elections. 

“Because public attitudes on voter fraud are unaffected by the stringency of a voter ID law, such laws cannot be justified on that basis,” a 2016 Stanford University study concluded.

Meanwhile, despite state Democrats’ attempt to dissuade efforts to investigate the state’s two most recent elections, the GOP lawmaker who’s leading the proposed review isn’t giving up. He’s doubling down.

“A full forensic investigation is necessary for the sake of transparency and accountability,” Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, wrote in a letter he said was sent to Biden on Tuesday. “Those who have concerns about the integrity of the election will have those concerns investigated and hopefully addressed. Those who think that there was zero voter fraud, no irregularities and that the elections were conducted perfectly will have the chance to be vindicated.”

Mastriano said he was seeking a meeting with Biden. The request follows a months-long campaign led by former President Donald Trump and his supporters to propagate unsubstantiated claims of a stolen election. And it comes nearly a week after Mastriano requested election materials from York, Tioga, and Philadelphia counties for the proposed investigation.

Mastriano has not responded to requests for comment but has touted his plans for an investigation in a string of interviews with right-wing media outlets.

Though there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud or election misconduct in Pennsylvania — or nationally — he said an investigation will restore trust in the electoral process, something he has questioned since Biden was elected.

Biden, who won the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania with 3.46 million votes, has not publicly acknowledged the letter.

Nick Field, Stephen Caruso, and Marley Parish write for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this article first appeared.