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Executive Order Directs Agencies to Step Up Voting Rights Efforts

March 8, 2021 by Dan McCue
Executive Order Directs Agencies to Step Up Voting Rights Efforts
President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House, Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON – Federal agencies must take steps to expand access to voter registration and give their employees time off to vote or volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers, a new executive order from the White House says.

President Joe Biden signed the order Sunday as part of the administration’s remembrance of “Bloody Sunday,” the 1965 incident in which hundreds of civil rights activists were viciously beaten by state troopers as they marched for civil rights in Selma, Ala.

“Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have it counted,” Biden said in recorded remarks played at Sunday’s Martin and Coretta King Unity Breakfast in Selma.

For safety purposes, the breakfast was turned into a drive-in event with some featured speakers like Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. and President Biden speaking virtually.

“If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let the people vote.”

Biden’s order comes as congressional Democrats are pressing for the passage of a sweeping voting rights and elections bill to counter efforts in several Republican-controlled states to restrict voting access.

The bill was approved in the House last Wednesday on a near party-line vote of 220-210.

It includes provisions to restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strike down hurdles to voting and bring transparency to a murky campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to anonymously bankroll political causes.

The bill’s fate is far from certain in the closely divided Senate. Conservative groups have undertaken a $5 million campaign to try to persuade moderate Senate Democrats to oppose rule changes needed to pass the measure.

With his executive order, Biden is looking to turn the spotlight on the issue and is using the somber commemoration of what many consider the turning point of the civil rights movement to make the case that much is at stake.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., thanked the president for signing the order, saying he could think of “no greater way of memorializing John Lewis and those who faced violence alongside him in Selma 56 years ago.”

“The steps being taken today encompass a range of federal actions that will increase access to voter registration services and election information, and I believe they will have a real impact and strengthen our democracy,” Hoyer said.

Biden’s order includes several modest provisions. It directs federal agencies to expand access to voter registration and election information, calls on the heads of agencies to come up with plans to give federal employees time off to vote or volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers, and pushes an overhaul of the government’s Vote.gov website.

“In 2020 — with our very democracy on the line — even in the midst of a pandemic – more Americans voted than ever before,” Biden said. “Yet instead of celebrating this powerful demonstration of voting — we saw an unprecedented insurrection on our Capitol and a brutal attack on our democracy on January 6th. A never-before-seen effort to ignore, undermine and undo the will of the people.”

Trevor Potter, president of Campaign Legal Center, and a Republican former chairman of the Federal Election Commission said Biden’s executive order, combined with White House support for the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, “shows a strong commitment by the Biden-Harris Administration to making our elections freer, fairer and more inclusive.

“By deploying the resources of the federal government to protect voting rights, America can streamline its voter registration process and improve on its record-setting voter participation in 2020,” Potter said. “This executive order represents the kind of progress that serves as a fitting honor to the legacy of Congressman John Lewis on Bloody Sunday. Follow-through on this executive order will be key to ensuring the administration meets its laudable goal of allowing all eligible Americans to participate in our democracy.”

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