President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Sunday directing the federal government to promote voting access in a move meant to commemorate the 56th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches for civil rights. “Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have that vote counted,” the president said in a virtual address to the Martin and Coretta King Unity Breakfast on Sunday just before signing the order. “If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let the people vote.”
The order directs federal agencies to expand access to voter registration and election information. That includes directing heads of all federal agencies to submit a “strategic plan” to the White House within 200 days on how their departments can promote voter registration and participation.
Additionally, the U.S. federal chief information officer will coordinate across federal agencies to “improve or modernize” federal websites and digital services that provide election and voting information under the order.
Biden’s executive action, limited in scope, comes as he backs Democrat-led voting rights legislation, H.R. 1, that cleared the House this week on a party-line vote. It would usher in sweeping election changes such as increasing early voting, reducing photo-identification requirements, allowing same-day registration and requiring independent redistricting of congressional districts.
The bill would also combat efforts of Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country that, inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud in his election loss, are considering new measures that would restrict voter access.
The unity breakfast fell on the 56th anniversary of “Blood Sunday” in Selma, Alabama. On March 7, 1965, more than 100 peaceful protesters on their way to Montgomery, including the late Rep. John Lewis, were met on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by a wall of police. The protesters were tear-gassed and beaten. Lewis’ skull was fractured.
“The legacy of the march in Selma is that while nothing can stop a free people from exercising their most sacred power as a citizen, there are those who will do everything they can to take that power away,” Biden said in his remarks to the attendees.
Biden also honored civil rights icons C.T. Vivian, Joseph Lowery and Lewis, all of whom died last year.
“Architects of the ‘Beloved Community,’ they built not only with words but with action. And reminders that in our lifetime, for Black Americans, the fundamental right to vote has been denied by white supremacy hiding both behind white hoods and in plain sight in statehouses and courtrooms,” the president said.
Typically, Biden, other top Democrats and civil rights leaders would pilgrimage to Selma for the anniversary, but there is no in-person gathering amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden’s executive order would also:
- Direct federal agencies to assist states with voter registration efforts under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
- Order the General Services Administration to improve and modernize the federal voter registration website Vote.gov.
- Order recommendations on leave for federal employees allowing them to vote or volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers
- Direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology to evaluate and publish recommendations on steps needed to ensure the online federal voter registration form is accessible to people with disabilities.
- Direct Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to establish procedures to annually offer each member of the armed forces the opportunity to register to vote in federal elections, update voter registration or request an absentee ballot.
- Direct the attorney general to establish procedures to provide educational materials on voter registration and voting for all eligible individuals in federal prisons or on probation by federal court.
- Establish a Native American voting rights steering group that will work with tribal organizations to identify best practices to protect voting rights of Native Americans