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What President Biden's speech about voting rights legislation means for Georgia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The president and vice president traveled to Georgia today to make the case for federal voting rights legislation. In a speech in Atlanta, President Biden referenced his long time in the Senate but called for changes to the chamber's filibuster rules in order to pass the voting measures.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today I'm making it clear. To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.

CHANG: Georgia, of course, has been ground zero for the battle over voting rights in this country. And so for more on the visit today, we're joined now by Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler, who attended today's remarks.

Welcome.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So how would you say President Biden used Georgia as a setting to make his case today for voting rights legislation?

FOWLER: Well, Biden mentioned Georgia's 98-page election law that overhauls virtually every aspect of voting in the state, from absentee by mail to counting of election results. He says Republicans in states like Georgia have, quote, "escalated the onslaught of legislation that makes it harder for people to vote unnecessarily."

One provision of the law bans third parties from handing out food and water directly to voters waiting in long lines. Georgia had long lines in predominantly non-white neighborhoods that tended to vote for Democrats, and it's one of the more controversial sections that he highlighted. Georgia also has a long history of fighting for voting rights. And the speech here in the Atlanta University Center in the home district of the late Congressman John Lewis - Lewis was beaten and bloodied for his right to vote. The president invoked the names and stories of civil rights icons here to say that in his mind, the battle for the soul of America is not yet over.

CHANG: All right. So despite the White House's very deliberate choice to place the remarks today in Georgia, as we heard at the top of the hour, not all voting advocates in your state were pleased by the speech today. They are ready for action, not speechifying. What was the sense in Georgia among traditional Democratic allies, though?

FOWLER: You know, people had the sense that coming here is preaching to the choir. Georgia's home to so many voting rights groups and organizations that have been doing the work and calling for change. They elected Joe Biden and the Democratic senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, and they feel they don't need to be even told the importance of voting rights.

That said, plenty of Democrats and groups were here and supportive of the president's aggressive tone and shift on the filibuster. Democratic senators and members of Congress from Georgia were very enthusiastic when Biden mentioned passing the two voting rights bills currently waiting in the Capitol. But there's healthy skepticism. They're waiting to see what action actually takes place and if the proof is in the pudding.

CHANG: Sure. And I'm curious. How have Republicans in your state responded to this White House trip so far?

FOWLER: Oh, they had a field day. We heard from both Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger today offering prebuttals to the president, saying Democrats are seeking the equivalent of a federal takeover of elections. Both Republicans defended the state's election administration last year and defended the new restrictions lawmakers passed this year. Here's Governor Brian Kemp.

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BRIAN KEMP: Ignoring facts and evidence, this administration has lied about Georgia's Elections Integrity Act from the beginning in an effort to force their unconstitutional federal takeover of elections on the American people.

FOWLER: And Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who got a shoutout from Biden for defending the election results, even outlined what he said federal lawmakers should do instead - a four-point plan, including nationwide voter ID.

CHANG: And real quick, the debate for federal legislation obviously returns to Washington, but what's next for voting in Georgia?

FOWLER: Well, there's still eight lawsuits over the voting bill, and lawmakers are considering even more changes to voting rules because - surprise, surprise - it's an election year here in Georgia.

CHANG: That is true. That is Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler.

Thank you so much, Stephen.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.