Martin Luther King Jr’s family urge Biden to ‘restore the voting rights he bled for’

Martin Luther King Jr sits at a table with his hands folded in front of his face

Martin Luther King Jr’s family and activists have vowed to “restore the very voting rights protection” the late civil rights leader fought to protect.

King’s family and over 100 groups honoured his legacy by leading a voting rights march in Washington DC on Martin Luther King Jr Day (17 January).

It’s part of an ongoing campaign, Deliver for Voting Rights, to restore the full power of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a corner stone of King’s legacy, after it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, and again in 2021

The march was led by King’s son, Martin Luther King III, his wife, Arndrea Waters King, and their daughter, Yolanda Renee King.

King III, chairman of the Drum Major Institute, told NBC News that they are working to “restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure”.

“We will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream for a more equal and just America,” he said.

The Senate is expected to pick up voting reform legislation this week, but without action from the president it is widely expected to fail.

Filibuster change needed for voting rights reform

The House passed a bill Thursday (13 January) that combined two pieces of voting rights legislation, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

It would expand access to mail-in voting, restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies and require that Election Day be a federal holiday. It also would enshrine an affirmative right to vote in federal law, Insider reported.

The bill passed by a 220-203 vote with no House Republican voting in favour. This doesn’t bode well for its passage through the Senate, where under the filibuster rule it must win 60 votes to pass.

Member of Martin Luther King Jr's family and civil rights advocates march with a banner that reads "deliver for voting rights"

(Center left to right) Yolanda Renee King, Arndrea Waters King and Martin Luther King III lead the annual DC Peace Walk: Change Happens with Good Hope and a Dream. (Getty/Samuel Corum)

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer wants to change the filibuster rule, something Biden has backed. This would allow voting reform to pass with a simple majority – the Senate is split 50-50, with vice president Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote.

At least two Democrats are standing in the way: Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin.

Arndrea Waters King has called on the president to use “the full weight of the White House” to get voting reform done.

She compared the situation to Biden’s wrangling of the infrastructure bill, telling CNN“We saw what happened when he used the full weight of the White House behind something.

“What we are simply saying is that we want to see that same full weight, the same full power being used behind the protection of our voting rights.”

Voting rights are an LGBT+ issue

HRC said that many voters – including LGBT+ voters – are vulnerable to voter suppression without the protections in the act.

JoDee Winterhof, HRC’s senior vice president of policy and political affairs, said in November that voters remain at risk of “being denied their fundamental and sacred right to vote” without the bill.

Aat least 2 million eligible LGBT+ Americans are not registered to vote, according to non-partisan organisation Headcount. The organisation warned that trans and non-binary people face extra hurdles when it comes to voting.

Several people are bent over casting their vote. Their votes are blocked from viewers by a white divider with a US flag and the word "vote" on it

Voters cast their ballots on Election Day 4 November 2008, at Centreville High School in Clifton, Virginia. (Paul J Richhards/AFP via Getty)

Headcount reported that almost half of states in the US (24) have restrictive ID requirements which prevent trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people from changing their name or gender marker on official documents.

Additionally, 36 states have voter ID laws that require people to present ID to confirm their identity before casting their vote.

A majority (49) of states and Washington DC require voter registration to match the legal name on official documents, Headcount reported. Over a fifth (14) of states require proof of gender-affirming surgery in order for trans people to be able to update the gender marker on their birth certificate.

A 2021 Gallup poll estimated 5.6 per cent of adult Americans identify as part of the LGBT+ community.

Our democracy stands on the brink.

Bills to expand voting rights in the US have had wide support from Democrats, but have faced fierce opposition from Republicans.

All 50 Republicans moved to block debate on the Freedom to Vote Act, which is part of the new bill, when it came up for debate in October. It was the third time in 2021 that the legislation to bolster voting rights was blocked, according to the New York Times.

Human Rights Campaign (HRC) heavily condemned the decision of Senate Republicans to block the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which it described as “critical voting rights legislation”, last year.

Senate Republicans united to block the act from advancing in November. The final vote was 50 to 49, with only Republican senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voting with Democrats in favour.

However, Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema recently stated she wouldn’t support any change to filibuster rules to get voting rights passed.

Biden met with Sinema and Joe Manchin, Democratic senator for West Virginia, to persuade them to change their minds. The president told reporters that he wasn’t confident about getting a voting rights bill passed.

“I hope we can get this done,” he said. “The honest to God answer is: I don’t know whether we can get this done.”

On Saturday (January 15), Dr King’s birthday, his son said: “Today, on my father’s 93rd birthday, we are not here to celebrate. We are here to issue an urgent call to president Biden and the Senate… and a dire warning to the entire nation that our democracy stands on the brink.”