Biden says US democracy facing biggest test since Civil War

US president calls on Congress to pass voting rights bills amid 'relentless' Republican push to make it harder for some to vote

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President Joe Biden on Tuesday called on the US Congress to act on protecting American voting rights, as Republicans in states they control pass a series of new laws that will make it harder for some people to cast their ballots.

Mr Biden's remarks come amid growing alarm in his Democratic Party that nothing less than the future of US democracy is at stake. He has proclaimed protecting ballot access the central cause of his presidency, but has faced sharp criticism from allies for not doing more.

“We are facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War,” Mr Biden said in a speech from the National Constitution Centre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“That's not hyperbole — since the Civil War. The Confederates, back then, never breached the Capitol as insurrectionists did on January 6.”

Over a dozen states have enacted laws that hamper American voting rights and Mr Biden says hundreds more are being considered.

The latest political fight over voting rights is in Texas, where Democrat legislators hurriedly fled to Washington to block sweeping new election laws Republicans are trying to pass back home.

“They want to make it so hard and inconvenient that they hope people don't vote at all. That's what this is about,” Mr Biden said about Republican state efforts.

“It's unrelenting. And we're going to challenge it vigorously.”

He said members of Congress should pass two voting rights bills as soon as possible, but he avoided any mention of trying to alter the Senate filibuster rule that stands in the path of federal legislation.

“We must pass the For the People Act,” he demanded, referring to a bill Republicans blocked in June.

Another bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, is still in process and could face a vote within weeks.

He also called on Americans to stand up to voter suppression and Republican legislators to stop supporting the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from former president Donald Trump.

Mr Biden said Republican efforts amount to “election subversion".

“Some things in America should be simple and straightforward,” he said.

“Perhaps the most important of those things, the most fundamental of those things, is the right to vote. The right to vote freely. The right to vote fairly. The right to have your vote counted.”

The Department of Justice in late June sued the state of Georgia to halt a voting law the Biden administration says limits voting rights for black Americans.

Florida's Republican governor in May passed a law against voter fraud, which Democrats and other critics believe limits voter access.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has threatened Democratic lawmakers with arrest after they fled to the state to deny Republicans a quorum to pass tough new voting laws.

Joined by fellow Texas state House Democrats, Chris Turner speaks during a news conference on voting rights outside the US Capitol on July 13, 2021 in Washington. AFP

Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives on Tuesday authorised finding and bringing back more than 50 lawmakers “under warrant of arrest if necessary”.

However, state troopers have no jurisdiction beyond Texas, making it unclear what, if any, actions would immediately be taken.

The Texas legislation would outlaw 24-hour polling places, ban ballot drop boxes used to deposit mail ballots and empower partisan poll watchers.

More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws — but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.

Chris Turner, the Texas House Democratic leader, predicted their efforts would ultimately be futile unless congressional Democrats take bolder action to overcome a Senate Republican blockade of their sweeping voting bill.

“We can’t hold this tide back forever. We’re buying some time. We need Congress and all of our federal leaders to use that time wisely,” he said.

The US and Texas state flags fly over the state Capitol building on July 12, 2021 in Austin, Texas. AFP

Despite the Texas exodus by Democrats, Mr Abbott has said Republicans will not be deterred.

“As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done,” Mr Abbott told Austin television station KVUE.

The cross-country exodus was the second time Democratic politicians have staged a walkout over the voting overhaul, a measure they say will make it harder for young people, people of colour and people with disabilities to vote. Like last month’s effort, there remains no clear path for Democrats to permanently block the voting measures.

Vice President Kamala Harris will meet the Democratic legislators this week, White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Updated: May 20, 2022, 11:41 PM