President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the sprawling apparatus of the federal government to promote voting rights on Sunday, the 56th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama.
But while Biden warned of an “all-out assault on the right to vote” in a speech on Sunday morning, the content of his executive order ― which mostly focuses on promoting voter registration and making election information more accessible ― highlights the reality of the president’s own limited powers to directly combat GOP-backed state legislation aiming to make it more difficult to vote.
The executive order directs federal agencies to expand access to voter registration and election information, orders the General Services Administration to develop a plan to update and improve the federal website Vote.gov, directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology to come up with recommendations to improve voting access for people with disabilities, promotes voter registration among members of the military and other overseas federal government employees, and creates a steering group on Native American voting rights led by the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.
“Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have it counted,” Biden told the Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King Unity Breakfast, according to prepared remarks for his virtual address. “If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let more people vote.”
The breakfast is an annual Selma-based event that commemorates the Bloody Sunday march in 1965.
In his speech, Biden pointed to the wave of state legislation sponsored by Republicans since the 2020 election that aims to increase voter identification requirements, cut early voting hours and sites, and either eliminate or restrict absentee and mail-in balloting. Many of the Republicans pushing such bills have endorsed former President Donald Trump’s false claims about mail-in ballot and other voter fraud in last year’s election.
A senior Biden administration official, previewing the executive order on a call with reporters, said one of its goals is to send a signal about the importance of voting rights, even while Biden’s powers in that area are limited.
“The president doesn’t have executive authority to prevent a state from taking that kind of action,” the administration official said. “[The order] uses the president’s bully pulpit to send a message to all the states and to all voters about the importance of democracy and shoring up democracy.”
In his speech Sunday morning, Biden reiterated his calls for Congress to pass both a sweeping democracy reform bill and a renewed Voting Rights Act. The Democratic-controlled House passed democracy reform legislation last Wednesday, but fierce Republican opposition means both it and a strengthened Voting Rights Act are dead in the water in the Senate unless Democrats move to reform the filibuster.
Biden’s remarks invoked the legacy of the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who was one of dozens of marchers injured by Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on that Sunday in 1965.
“The legacy of the march in Selma is that while nothing can stop a free people from exercising their most sacred power as citizens, there are those who will do everything they can to take that power away,” Biden said.