“Here in Georgia, for years, we’ve done the hard work of democracy,” President Joe Biden told the crowd at the Atlanta University Center (AUC).

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Atlanta on Jan. 11 to discuss the importance of voting rights. In the wake of Georgia’s voting issues in the 2020 election and the passing of Senate Bill 202, a bill that overhauls the state’s election laws, Biden and Harris highlighted the need for federal legislation to protect the right to vote.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate have attempted to pass bills that would protect citizens’ right to vote with resistance from their Republican counterparts. Biden visited Atlanta to communicate the importance of passing these reforms.

On Jan. 19, the voting rights bill was blocked in the Senate by a Republican blockade.

President Joe Biden speaks./Courtesy of Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.

Emory Young Democrats Current Events Director Eric Kovarsky (24C), who attended the event, agreed with the message of the visit.

“It’s very important to pass voting rights on a national level,” Kovarsky said.

In his speech, Biden criticized Republican efforts to pass voting bills in state legislatures in his speech, saying the bills “turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion.”

Similarly, Harris called these Republican efforts an “assault on our freedom” that affects everyone, regardless of their political party. 

Senate Bill 202, or the “Election Integrity Act of 2021,” was signed in March 2021 by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. The controversial bill changes essential components of absentee voting. The deadlines to register and complete mail-in absentee voting have a shorter time frame, third-party groups are limited in the amount of absentee votes they can send and there are rigorous new ID requirements for absentee voters.

Harris urged the audience to stay vigilant despite voting restriction laws.

“We must not be deceived into thinking a law that makes it illegal to help a voter with a disability vote by mail is normal,” Harris said.

The bill also changes parameters for early voting and in-person voting; most notably, the bill prohibits anyone except poll workers from passing out water to voters in line. 

Biden expressed how shocking he found this new law to be.  

“It makes it illegal to bring your neighbors, your fellow voters food or water … what in the hell are we talking about?” Biden said.

Kovarsky said the bill was “clearly an attempt by the government in Georgia to suppress the votes.”

However, Emory College Republicans President Robert Schmad (23C) said that he was “taken aback” by Biden’s speech.

“I felt he was sowing unfounded doubts in Georgia’s electoral system,” Schmad said.

During their visit, Biden and Harris emphasized the importance of every citizens’ right to vote being protected. 

“The fundamental right to vote is a right from which all other rights flow,” Biden said.

Before making speeches, Biden and Harris laid a wreath at the King Center to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a week before MLK day. They then proceeded to the AUC, a consortium of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Georgia, to make their speeches.

Although former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and current Mayor Andre Dickens were in attendance, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams was not present.

Biden clarified that Abrams’ absence was not a snub and that the politicians had gotten “scheduling mixed up.” Abrams also refuted rumors that she had boycotted the event but did not explain what caused her to miss the speech.

Prior to the president’s visit, members of various voting rights groups in Atlanta expressed frustration, with some saying that the visit felt like a “photo-op.”

Executive Director of Black Voters Matter Cliff Albright boycotted the speeches. Albright suggested that the president and vice president skip the trip entirely and focus instead on convincing the senate.

“They have reason to be frustrated,” Kovarsky said, “without Georgia there would be no democratic senate.”

Kovarsky doesn’t think Biden deserves the blame, however, instead pointing to Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Az.).

Emory Young Democrats President Eden Yonas (22C) said she wanted Biden’s visit to motivate federal voting rights legislation.

“I’m hopeful that we can get some changes in congress,” Yonas said.

During the event, Biden commemorated various groups on their work expanding voter participation in Georgia.

“You’ve changed the state by bringing more people, legally, to the polls,” Biden said.

With the 2022 midterms and Georgia gubernatorial election, Yonas is hopeful.

“Seeing the momentum on campus that grew during the 2018 election shows hopefully just a little snippet of what we’re going to see in November,” Yonas said.