Remarks on Voting Rights in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Thank you. I see an awful lot of good friends out there. Please have a seat if you have one.
I—let me begin by saying I used to be important. [Laughter] I used to be the chairman of the board of this place. And Jeffrey Rosen allowed me to do that for a while.
But thank you all for being here. I truly appreciate it. Governor, it's above and beyond the call. Mr. Mayor, I compliment—I thought you were a great mayor—still think you are—but your judgment in fiancées is even stronger. And—but all of you. And a good friend, Bobby Brady. I see so many friends out. Al Sharpton—Al, how are you, pal? It's great to see you.
And I'm going to get in trouble here because I'm going to recognize my Congresswoman from the State of Delaware, Lisa Blunt Rochester, and her sister who used to run my office. Stand up.
Well, folks, good afternoon. There's a serious subject I'd like to talk about today. I'm here in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center, the city and the place where the story of "We the People"—"We the People"—began. It's a story that's neither simple nor straightforward. That's because the story is the sum of our parts, and all those parts are fundamentally human. And being human is to be imperfect, driven by appetite and ambition as much as by goodness and grace.
But some things in America should be simple and straightforward. 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 freely, the right to vote fairly, the right to have your vote counted. The democratic threshold is liberty. With it, anything is possible. Without it, nothing—nothing.
And for our democracy and the work—and to deliver our work and [for]* our people, it's up to all of us to protect that right. This is a test of our time and what I'm here to talk about today.
Just think about the past election. A 102-year-old woman in Arkansas who voted for the first time on the very spot she once picked cotton. A 94-year-old woman in Michigan who voted early and in person in her 72d consecutive election. You know what she said? She said this election was, quote, "the most important vote that we ever had."
The daughter who voted in memory of her dad who died of COVID-19 so others wouldn't have the experience of pain and darkness and loss that she was going through. Patients out there. And the parents—the parents who voted for school their children will learn in. Sons and daughters voted for the planet they're going to live on. Young people just turning 18 and everyone who, for the first time in their lives, thought they could truly make a difference.
America—America and Americans of every background voted. They voted for good jobs and higher wages. They voted for racial equity and justice. They voted to make health care a right and not a privilege.
And the reason that Americans went to vote and the lengths they went to vote—to be able to vote in this past election were absolutely extraordinary. In fact, the fact that so many election officials across the country made it easier and safer for them to be able to vote in the middle of a pandemic was remarkable.
As a result, in 2020, more people voted in America than ever, ever in the history of America, in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic. All told, more than 150 [million]* Americans of every age, of every race, of every background exercised their right to vote. They voted early. They voted absentee. They voted in person. They voted by mail. They voted by drop box. And then, they got their families and friends to go out and vote.
Election officials, the entire electoral system, withstood unrelenting political attacks, physical threats, intimidation, and pressure. They did so with unyielding courage and faith in our democracy.
With recount after recount after recount, court case after court case, the 2020 election was the most scrutinized election ever in American history. Challenge after challenge brought to local, State, and election officials; State legislatures; State and Federal courts—even to the United States Supreme Court not once, but twice.
More than 80 judges, including those appointed by my predecessor, heard the arguments. In every case, neither cause nor evidence was found to undermine the national achievement of administering this historic election in the face of such extraordinary challenges.
Audits, recounts were conducted in Arizona, in Wisconsin. In Georgia, it was recounted three times. It's clear. For those who challenge the results and question the integrity of the election: No other election has ever been held under such scrutiny and such high standards. The big lie is just that: a big lie.
The 2020 election—it's not hyperbole to suggest—the most examined and the fullest expression of the will of the people in the history of this Nation. This should be celebrated, the example of America at its best. But instead, we continue to see an example of human nature at its worst, something darker and more sinister.
In America, if you lose, you accept the results. You follow the Constitution. You try again. You don't call facts "fake" and then try to bring down the American experiment just because you're unhappy. That's not statesmanship. [Applause] That's not statesmanship, that's selfishness. That's not democracy, it's the denial of the right to vote. It suppresses. It subjugates.
The denial of full and free and fair elections is the most un-American thing that any of us can imagine, the most undemocratic, the most unpatriotic, and yet, sadly, not unprecedented.
From denying enslaved people—full citizenship until the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War; to denying women the right to vote until the 19th Amendment a hundred years ago; to poll taxes and literacy tests, and the Ku Klux Klan campaigns of violence and terror that lasted into the fifties and sixties; to the Supreme Court decision in 2013 and then again just 2 weeks ago, a decision that weakened the landmark Voting Rights Act; to the willful attacks—election attacks in 2020; and then to a whole other level of threat, the violence and the deadly insurrection on the Capitol on January 6.
I just got back from Europe, speaking to the G-7 and to NATO. They wonder—not a joke; they wonder, Gov—they ask me, "Is it going to be okay?" The citadel of democracy in the world, "Is it going to be okay?" Time and again, we've weathered threats to the right to vote in free and fair elections. And each time, we found a way to overcome. And that's what we must do today.
Vice President Harris and I have spent our careers doing this work. And I've asked her to lead, to bring people together to protect the right to vote and our democracy. And it starts with continuing the fight to pass H.R. 1, the For the People Act.
That bill—that bill—would help end voter suppression in the States, get dark money out of politics, give voice to the people at the grassroots level, create a fairer district maps, and end partisan political gerrymandering. Last month, Republicans opposed even debating, even considering For the Peoples Act. Senate Democrats stood united to protect our democracy and the sanctity of the vote. 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 and prevent voter suppression. All the Congress women and men here—there's a bunch of you—you knew John, many of you.
Just weeks ago, the Supreme Court yet again weakened the Voting Rights Act and upheld what Justice Kagan called, quote, "a significant race-based disparity in voting opportunities." The Court's decision, as harmful as it is, does not limit the—Congress ability to repair the damage done. That's the important point. It puts the burden back on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act to its intended strength.
As soon as Congress passes the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, I will sign it and let the whole world see it. That will be an important moment. And the world is wondering—the world is wondering—and Dwight knows what I'm talking about, for real. You know, the world is wondering, "What is America going to do?"
But we also have to clear eyed about the obstruction we face. Legislation is one tool, but not the only tool. And it's not the only measure of our obligation to defend democracy today. For example, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the United States Department of Justice is going to be using its authorities to challenge the onslaught of State laws undermining voting rights in old and new ways.
The focus will be on dismantling racially discriminatory laws, like the recent challenge to Georgia's vicious antivoting law. The Department of Justice will do so with a voting rights division that—at my request—is doubling its size in enforcement staff. Civil rights groups—civil rights groups—and other organizations have announced their plans to stay vigilant and challenge these odious laws in the courts.
In Texas, for example, Republican-led State legislature wants to allow partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters and imperil—and impartial poll workers. They want voters to dive [drive]* further and be able to be in a position where they wonder who's watching them and intimidating them; to wait longer to vote. To drive a hell of lot—excuse me, a long way—[laughter]—to get to vote. They want to make it so hard and inconvenient that they hope people don't vote at all. That's what this is about.
This year alone, 17 States have enacted—not just proposed, but enacted—28 new laws to make it harder for Americans to vote, not to mention—and catch this—nearly 400 additional bills Republican members of the State legislatures are trying to pass. The 21st-century Jim Crow assault is real. It's unrelenting, and we're going to challenge it vigorously.
While this broad assault against voting rights is not unprecedented, it's taking on a new and, literally, pernicious forms. It's no longer just about who gets to vote or making it easier for eligible voters to vote. It's about who gets to count the vote, who gets to count whether or not your vote counted at all. It's about moving from independent election administrators who work for the people to polarized State legislatures and partisan actors who work for political parties.
To me, this is simple: This is election subversion. It's the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history. Never before have they decided who gets to count—count—what votes count.
Some State legislatures want to make it harder for you to vote. And if you vote, they want to be able to tell you your vote doesn't count for any reason they make up. They want the ability to reject the final count and ignore the will of the people if their preferred candidate loses. And they're trying—not only targeting people of color, they're targeting voters of all races and backgrounds. It's with a simple target: who did not vote for them. That's the target.
It's unconscionable. I mean, really, I—it's hard to declare just how critical this is. It's simply unconscionable. We've got to shore up our election system and address the threats of election subversion, not just from abroad—which I spent time with Putin talking about—but from home. From home.
We must ask those who represent us at the Federal, State, and local levels: Will you deny the will of the people? Will you ignore their voices? We have to ask: Are you on the side of truth or lies; fact or fiction; justice or injustice; democracy or autocracy? That's what it's coming down to.
Which brings me to perhaps the most important thing we have to do: We have to forge a coalition of Americans of every background and political party—the advocates, the students, the faith leaders, the labor leaders, the business executives—and raise the urgency of this moment.
Because as much as people know they're screwing around with the election process, I don't think that most people think this is about who gets to count what vote counts—literally, not figuratively. You vote for certain electors to vote for somebody for President. State legislator comes along—under their proposal—and they say: "No, we don't like those electors. We're going to appoint other electors who are going to vote for the other guy or other woman."
Because here's the deal: In 2020, democracy was put to a test—first by the pandemic; then by a desperate attempt to deny the reality and the results of the election; and then by a violent and deadly insurrection on the Capitol, the citadel of our democracy.
I've been around a long time in public life. I thought I've seen it all or most of it all. But I never thought I'd see that, for real. And in spite of what you see on television—and you saw it—you have Senators saying it was just a day at the Capitol, just people visiting the Capitol.
Folks, but we met the test. Because of the extraordinary courage of election officials—many of them Republicans—our court system, and those brave Capitol police officers, because of them, democracy held. Look how close it came. I mean, for real, how close it came. We're going to face another test in 2022: a new wave of unprecedented voter suppression and raw and sustained election subversion. We have to prepare now.
As I've said time and again: No matter what, you can never stop the American people from voting. They will decide, and the power must always be with the people.
That's why, just like we did in 2020, we have to prepare for 2022. We'll engage in an all-out effort to educate voters about the changing laws, register them to vote, and then get the vote out. We'll encourage people to run for office themselves at every level.
We will be asking my Republican friends—in Congress, in States, in cities, in counties—to stand up, for God's sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our elections and the sacred right to vote. Have you no shame?
Whether it's stopping foreign interference in our elections or the spread of disinformation from within, we have to work together. Vice President Harris and I will be making it clear that there's real peril in making raw power, rather than the idea of liberty, the centerpiece of the common life.
The Founders understood this. The women of Seneca Falls understood this. The brave, heroic foot soldiers of the civil rights movement understood this. So must we.
This isn't about Democrats and Republicans; it's literally about who we are as Americans. It's that basic. It's about the kind of country we want today, the kind of country we want for our children and grandchildren tomorrow. And quite frankly, the whole world is watching.
Folks, I'm not being sentimental. I'm not preaching to you. I'm just giving it to you straight, as I promised I would always do: lay things out on the line and honor your trust with trust [truth].* So hear me clearly: There is an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections, an assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are—who we are as Americans.
For make no mistake, bullies and merchants of fear and peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country. It gives me no pleasure to say this. I never thought in my entire career I'd ever have to say it. But I swore an oath to you, to God: to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. And that's an oath that forms a sacred trust to defend America against all threats both foreign and domestic.
The assault on free and fair elections is just such a threat, literally. I've said it before: We're facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War—that's not hyperbole—since the Civil War. The Confederates back then never breached the Capitol as insurrectionists did on January the 6th. I'm not saying this to alarm you; I'm saying this because you should be alarmed.
I'm also saying this: There's good news. It doesn't have to be this way. It doesn't have to be, for real. We have the means. We just need the will: the will to save and strengthen our democracy. We did in twenty—we did it in the 2020. The battle for the soul of America—in that battle, the people voted. Democracy prevailed. Our Constitution held. We have to do it again.
My fellow Americans, it requires fair-mindedness; devotion to justice; corny as it sounds, a love of country. It requires us to unite in common purpose, to declare here and now: We, the people, will never give up. We will not give in. We will overcome. We will do it together. And guaranteeing the right to vote, ensuring every vote is counted has always been the most patriotic thing we can do.
Just remember, our late friend John Lewis said, "Freedom is not a state; it's an act." Freedom is not a state; it's an act. And we must act, and we will act. For our cause is just, our vision is clear, and our hearts are full. For "We the People," for our democracy, for America itself, we must act.
God bless you all, and may God protect our troops and all those stand watch over our democracy. But act. We've got to act. Thank you.
NOTE: The President spoke at 2:46 p.m. at the National Constitution Center. In his remarks, he referred to Jeffrey Rosen , president and chief executive officer, National Constitution Center ; Gov. Thomas W. Wolf of Pennsylvania; Mayor James F. Kenney of Philadelphia and his fiancée Letitia "Letty" Santarelli; former Rep. Robert A. Brady; political activist and commentator Alfred C. Sharpton, Jr.; Marla Blunt-Carter, former director of constituent services for President Biden's Senate office; former President Donald J. Trump; Rep Dwight E. Evans; and President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin of Russia.
* White House correction.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on Voting Rights in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/337033