If the rules in Georgia’s controversial 2021 voting overhaul were in place before last November’s historic U.S. Senate races were pushed to Jan. 5 runoffs, then 76,000 residents who cast their ballots would’ve been unable to register in time for the second round.
A U.S. Senate committee gathered in downtown Atlanta Monday to hear how shortened runoff timeframes, tighter absentee ballot deadlines, and new state powers over local election officials are cause for Congress to expand voting protections through pending federal legislation.
The chair of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, said it’s not a coincidence that the sweeping Republican legislation requires runoffs to be held 28 days after an election when state law mandates that voters are registered at least 29 days before the Election Day.
On Jan. 5, Georgia voters handed Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock a pair of historic victories over Republican incumbent, giving Democrats control of the federal government.
Georgia is now ground zero in the battle over access to the ballot box for Democrats and civil rights activists who say they’re fighting against voter suppression tactics that will disproportionately affect Black and other minority voters.
“It is no coincidence that this assault on the freedom to vote is happening just after the 2020 election, when nearly 160 million Americans cast a ballot — more than ever before in the middle of a pandemic, in an election the Trump Department of Homeland Security declared the most secure in history,” Klobuchar said during the first field hearing hosted by the committee in 20 years.
Republican-controlled legislatures across the country this year are passing restrictive new voting laws, prompting Democratic U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to double his enforcement staff to protect voting rights.
“This year alone, as I noted, hundreds of hundreds of bills have been introduced,” Klobuchar said. “That is why we are here.”
The hearing at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights was held two days after the first anniversary of the death of the civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the namesake for a voting law stalled in the Senate that would restore a pre-clearance formula set by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Senate panel and witnesses that included Warnock, Ossoff, state legislators and others also called for the Senate to move forward with the “For the People Act.”
The path for passing federal voting rights legislation is steep, as the 50 Senate Republicans are showing solidarity against both bills. Without GOP support, the bills will need to reach the unlikely 60-vote threshold required to end a filibuster and advance to the desk of President Joe Biden for his signature.
Warnock said his top priority this year is for federal intervention after lawmakers in 48 states introduced nearly 400 bills restricting voting laws.
“We have no time to spare; there’s nothing more important for us to do in Congress,” he said.
Republican supporters of Georgia’s election overhaul argue that the legislation improves the security of the absentee voting system. Some Georgians would get more voting options, including a mandated extra weekend voting day and more public notice on polling location changes.
Witnesses testified Monday that allowing fewer days to receive and return absentee ballots, limiting the number of drop boxes and requiring ID to receive an absentee ballot will result in longer lines in places where most voters are Black.
Many voters in metro Atlanta used absentee ballot drop boxes to cast votes, a method approved for the first time by state officials to keep people safe in the pandemic. The new law restricts the state’s largest counties to one drop box.
Ossoff said Monday that he waited several hours in line to vote in last year’s primary at a precinct that’s majority Black.
The senators and witnesses also testified that during 2020 Black voters used absentee ballots at a higher rate than prior years and how the turnout among Latino and Asian-American groups resulted in some key victories in the presidential and congressional elections.
Sen. Sally Harrell said that Republicans rushed the final version of the election legislation through when a two-page Senate version morphed into a 98-page bill in the waning days of the General Assembly in late March.
She urged Congress to pass the voting legislation.
“It’s not a static thing where you’re going to be able to pass one bill and solve it all because the methods keep changing,” said the Atlanta Democrat. “So stay with us. We need to keep feeding this information so that Congress can constantly help ensure that where you live doesn’t determine if your vote counts.”
Georgia Republicans continued to defend the state’s new rules in a call held with reporters after the Senate hearing and dismissed Monday’s stop in Atlanta as a publicity stunt designed to appease the Democratic base after coming up short on support for a federal voting measure.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the DOJ, the DNC or the Senate Democrats. We aren’t backing down,” Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters. “We’re going to continue to fight for the truth, and we’re going to stand up for secure, accessible, and fair elections.”
Kemp said he and Attorney General Chris Carr were unable to accept an invitation to appear at the hearing due to a conflicting at a legislative committee meeting focused on crime in Atlanta.
“To me, I don’t think anything about this hearing has been fair,” Kemps said. “I’ve done over 90 interviews, answering any questions that I’ve gotten from anybody on Senate Bill 202.”
And U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the hearing as another attempt to spread the message that Georgia’s updated voting law is unfair.
“This spring, the state of Georgia passed a mainstream election law that expanded early voting and made drop boxes permanent for the first time,” said the Kentucky lawmaker. “The left responded with a total meltdown,” the Regulations that left Georgia with more flexible early voting and more flexible absentee voting than many blue states including New York were — insanely — called ‘Jim Crow 2.0.”
Georgia’s election results have been confirmed through several counts and 2020’s elections are hailed as the most secure in the state’s history by Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Helen Butler, executive director of Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, testified Monday the provision that worries her most is the state’s new ability to take over local election boards deemed to be underperforming.
“It is the most egregious part of SB 202 because, as you know, those local boards control the implementation of the process from registration, to the ballots, to the certification of the election,” Butler said.
State Rep. Barry Fleming, a Harlem Republican who ushered the election overhaul through the contentious legislative process until the governor signed it, defended the provision he compares to a school-turnaround bill that allows the state to take over low-performing schools.
“We thought it was an appropriate response to try to better make sure voters’ vote count in Georgia and future elections,” Fleming said.
Carr, who is defending the election law in court against a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit, called the hearing a “circus” and accused President Joe Biden of weaponizing the DOJ against the state.
Stanley Dunlap is a reporter for the Georgia Recorder, which first published this story.