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Biden order attempts to blunt Republican efforts to restrict voting

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – President Joe Biden will sign an executive order on Sunday (March 7) mandating federal departments and agencies increase efforts to help Americans register to vote, as the White House looks for ways to offset Republican efforts to toughen voting standards.

The executive action will direct federal facilities to accept requests from states – which each run their own voter processes – to become registration sites, and calls for a modernisation of the Vote.gov website.

The effort aims “to make it easier for eligible voters to register to vote, and improve access to voting,” Biden will say in taped remarks to the annual Martin and Coretta King Unity Breakfast, according to the White House.

Biden’s push comes amid heated debate over voter access, inflamed by a 2020 election that saw a record number of ballots cast, as well as a sizable uptick in mail-in voting in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump, defeated by Biden in November, repeatedly blamed his loss, without evidence, on widespread fraud, an effort to cast doubt on the electoral system that culminated in the Jan 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.

Since then, GOP lawmakers have promoted state-level efforts to make registration requirements more stringent, and to reduce mail-in and early voting.

In a Feb 28 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, his first since leaving the White House, Trump said “we need one election day, not 45,” and derided the “insanity” of mail-in voting.

Democrats have argued that such measures are intended to disenfranchise poor and minority voters who are less likely to have additional documentation – such as drivers licences – or be able to take off work to vote on Election Day itself.

“During this current legislative session, elected officials in 43 states have already introduced over 250 bills to make it harder to vote,” Biden will say. “We cannot let them succeed.”

House Democrats this month passed a sweeping election reform bill that would mandate same-day voter registration and an expansion of early voting. But that effort seems doomed to failure in the Senate, where the filibuster means Democrats would need to recruit 10 Republicans to back the bill.

Trump called the bill a “monster” that “cannot be allowed to pass”.

Democrats have also sought to restore elements of the Voting Rights Act. That follows the Supreme Court’s move in 2013 to strike down a key provision requiring states and local governments with a history of discrimination to get pre-clearance from the federal government before enacting changes to voting procedures.

And this month, the conservative-leaning high court heard arguments on another voting rights case that could free state legislatures to make more changes to voting laws.

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Biden on Sunday will say that he hopes the Senate passes the House legislation so he can sign it into law, and call on Congress “to fully restore the Voting Rights Act”.

The executive order also calls for the Pentagon to give service members an opportunity to register to vote or update their information, and asks agencies to examine how they might allow federal employees the option to take leave to vote or volunteer as poll workers. And the Biden administration will examine ways to improve voting access for eligible federal prisoners, as well as Native Americans.

The impact of the order will depend on how many Americans take advantage of new registration and voting opportunities that might result, but a senior administration official – who previewed the action on the condition of anonymity – said the effort represented the extent of what the president can accomplish unilaterally.

Unveiling the action on Sunday – the anniversary of the 1965 Bloody Sunday civil rights march in Selma, Alabama – was also intended to underscore Biden’s commitment to the issue of voting rights, the official said.

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