Senate Democrats again on Tuesday pushed for a national extension of voting rights, summoning leaders from the battlefield state of Georgia to draft a public case in which Congress should intervene to break down state electoral barriers.
At a heated hearing on Capitol Hill, senators interviewed elected officials, academics and supporters of the state’s new electoral law and dozens of others about how it had been introduced in Republican state houses since the 2020 elections that would restrict access to ballot papers. Her main witness was Stacey Abrams, the Georgia suffrage activist who arguably did more than any other Democrat to formulate her party’s views on electoral issues.
For over four hours, Ms. Abrams argued that Republican-led states like hers were seeing “a resurgence in anti-color-voting policies” against color voters across the country. She accused Republicans of using “racial animation” to tip the electorate in their favor after former President Donald J. Trump lost Georgia and unfoundedly claimed he was a victim of electoral fraud.
She warned that decades of profits could be reversed if Congress didn’t intervene.
“When basic suffrage is left to the political ambitions and prejudices of state actors who rely on repression to maintain power, federal advocacy is the appropriate tool,” Abrams said.
While the Justice Committee hearing wasn’t specifically legislative, it was part of a push by the Democrats to use their leverage in Washington to propose a few key voting bills that could counter hundreds of restrictive proposals in the states.
The first is a gigantic overhaul of the national elections, known as H.R. 1, which would, among other things, force states to expand early voting and postal voting, mandate automatic voter registration and neutral restrictive voter identification laws.
The second bill, named after civil rights icon John Lewis, would restore a key enforcement provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made it difficult for states to oppose color voters. It was put down by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Republicans oppose both bills but have directed their anger most directly at the election overhaul, which includes a new funding system for public campaigns and a revision of the federal election commission. Calling it a gross federal violation on Tuesday to help the Democrats consolidate power, they rejected allegations of racism and renewed their vows to defeat them in the evenly-divided Senate.
“H.R. 1 is not about correcting injustice,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “It is about power.”
In a sign of how polarized the debate over the vote has become, the two parties have even argued over the title of the hearing itself. Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and chairman of the panel, had called it “Jim Crow 2021: The Recent Assault on the Suffrage”. Republicans called this historically inaccurate and accused Democrats – including President Biden – of cheapening the stain of violent racial repression by comparing it to current electoral laws.
“It is disgusting and insulting to compare the actual suppression and violence of voters of the day we grew up with a state law that only requires people to show their ID,” said Republican Burgess Owens, Republican of Utah , adding that he “actually” had witnessed Jim Crow Laws “as a child in the south.
Mr Durbin acknowledged that Jim Crow “was more violent at worst than the situation we face today”. But he insisted that the goal was similar.
“The bottom line of this hearing is whether the legislation in many states, including the state of Georgia, has an intention or intention to limit or restrict minority voting rights,” said Mr. Durbin. “I think so. this is of course.”
The unified republican opposition poses certain problems for a major federal electoral law. The Democrats would have to convince all 50 of their Senators to vote for the bill and create a spin-off of Senate rules to pass it by a simple majority, relying on the casting vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. But for now, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, has opposed this approach and called for bipartisan negotiations.
The attempts by the Democrats to renew the voting rights law appear to be just as steep. Republicans no longer consider it necessary to re-establish the affected provision, which required federal approval of changes in voting procedures in parts of the country with a history of discrimination.
Without them, proxies say they have seen an increase in restrictive state electoral laws like Georgian and will have to spend years in court trying to overturn laws that violate the Constitution.
“Litigation is a blunt tool,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “What the pre-clearance gave us was to be one step ahead of voter discrimination before it happened.”
Republicans repeatedly turned to their own witnesses to try to roll back proposals from Democrats, including Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s long-time electoral officer and Democrat. Mr Gardner argued that trying to overhaul his party would backfire.
“Why should we be made to be like California in particular or in other states?” Mr. Gardner said. “We have a method that works for the people of New Hampshire. The turnout is proof that it works, and this type of federal legislation is detrimental to the way we vote. “
Georgia House Republican spokesman Jan Jones, who campaigned vigorously for their state’s new electoral law, said Republicans were only “making voting easier and cheating harder.”
She said a provision banning third groups from providing food and water to voters waiting in line to cast their ballots is not a draconian tactic to stifle voter turnout, but an attempt to target activists and candidates to prevent food and other goodies from being used to influence voters.
An analysis by the New York Times identified 16 provisions in Georgian law that either impair people’s voting power or shift power to the Republican-controlled legislature.
Republican senators seemed just as eager to question Ms. Abrams, a Democratic star who might run for governor of Georgia again next year, directly. Mr. Graham and Senator John Cornyn of Texas showered them with questions designed to make their claims about voter identification laws contradictory and their condemnation of the Georgian Statute hypocritical.
“So the voter card is sometimes racist, sometimes not racist?” Asked Mr. Cornyn in a long exchange.
“Intent is always important, sir, and that is the point of this conversation,” replied Ms. Abrams, saying that she supported some voter identification laws. “That’s the point of the Jim Crow narrative. That Jim Crow not only looked at the activities but also at the intent. “
Polls show that the public generally supports such laws, but advocates of voting rights argue that they can make it difficult for some people of color to vote.
Mr. Cornyn kept rephrasing the question. Mrs. Abrams pushed back.
“Senator, I am happy to answer your questions, but if you characterize my answers incorrectly, it is inappropriate,” she said.
Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton blamed Ms. Abrams for Major League Baseball’s decision to move this summer’s All-Star game out of Georgia, and said her public criticism of the electoral law was “central” to one Decision played that this could cost their state economically.
Ms. Abrams disagreed strongly, saying she had spoken out against the league move but would stand by anyone who defends the right to vote.
“For me a game day is not worth losing our democracy,” she said.