The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Georgia Republicans were quiet about their attack on voting rights, but, oh, did they laugh

People wait in line for early voting at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Ga., on Oct. 12. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP)
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Michelle Au, a Democrat, is a Georgia state senator.

What struck me the most was the noise coming from all the wrong places.

Thursday afternoon, I sat in the chamber of the Georgia State Senate and watched as my colleagues, one after another, went up to the well to speak out against Senate Bill 202, a true Frankenstein’s monster of voter-suppression measures. It was clearly designed to ensure that a record Democratic turnout like the one in November — and in the state’s U.S. Senate runoffs in January — never happens again.

This hastily sewn-together bill is a broad attack on voting rights. It includes imposing limits on the use of mobile polling places and drop boxes; raising voter identification requirements for casting absentee ballots; barring state officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballots to voters; and preventing voter mobilization groups from sending absentee ballot applications to voters or returning their completed applications. The list goes on.

In perhaps the most petty, direct attack on voters of color — who disproportionately are forced to stand in long lines to vote in Georgia — the measure, supposedly to prevent undue influence, outlaws providing food or drinks to voters waiting to exercise their democratic rights.

The bill had sailed through a House vote earlier that day, landing on our desks for approval about 3 in the afternoon. My fellow Senate Democrats and I knew, as the minority party in more ways than one, that we didn’t have the votes to kill the legislation. But one by one, we tried our hardest. Speakers pointed out the bill’s dubious legality, its de facto permission for the state to wrest control of county elections, its crippling cost burden, its blatant disenfranchisement of minority, immigrant, working-class voters.

Democrats criticized a Republican-led effort to restrict voting in Georgia on March 28, while Republicans slammed attempts to alter the Senate filibuster. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

This discussion lasted hours, a passionate chorus taking a last stand to defend foundational democratic principles. But what struck me the most was the Republicans’ silence.

From the back of the room, at my desk, I could see a sea of empty Republican seats — for senators who couldn’t even bother to sit in the room and pay even the tiniest respect to a discussion fundamental to the rights and interests of those they purport to represent.

While my Democratic colleagues raised their voices in defense of these rights, the silence of the Republicans in the chamber was deafening.

But it wasn’t quiet everywhere. In the Senate anteroom, a small, clubby space off to the side of the chamber, filled with tufted leather furniture, I could hear plenty of noise from behind the heavy wood doors. Laughter, hearty conversation, an occasional jovially raised voice. This was where the Republicans’ noise was, this was where their attention lived — in a small, exclusive room, its walls lined with decades of photos of past legislators who looked so much like them.

As expected, the bill passed along party lines. Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, signed it into law about an hour later. The Georgia General Assembly is not an institution known for its blistering efficiency, and I have never seen anything at the Capitol happen quite as quickly as this.

Signings on important bills are often done publicly, with some fanfare, alongside key legislators and in front of the public and the news media. This piece of legislation was signed behind closed doors.

But even at that moment, there was more righteous noise. A Democratic House representative, Park Cannon, was arrested after she knocked on the governor’s office door, asking to be allowed to watch a bill-signing ceremony affecting the lives of so many Georgians.

From the third floor, I could hear the shouts, the footfalls, and watched as she was roughly escorted out of the building. Cameras swarmed, and colleagues and bystanders screamed, demanding to know why she was being arrested.

Cannon was charged with two felony offenses, The Post reported, “for obstructing law enforcement and preventing or disrupting General Assembly sessions or other meetings of members.” She has vowed to contest the charges.

Near the end of the evening, before the Senate vote, one of my Republican colleagues had taken to the well to close the discussion. Unbelievably, Sen. John Albers called SB 202 a measure to enhance voting access, and painted my colleagues’ framing of the bill as a distortion. “The truth matters,” Albers repeated earnestly. It is unclear how much the Republicans actually believe this narrative, but one thing is resoundingly clear: their indifference to the basic principles of democracy.

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Read more:

Greg Sargent: A scorching reply to Georgia’s vile new voting law unmasks a big GOP lie

Ruth Marcus: Georgia’s repulsive new election law is Exhibit A in the GOP’s war on voting rights

Jennifer Rubin: States that pass Jim Crow-style voting laws will feel the backlash

Paul Waldman: Republicans have stopped pretending they aren’t trying to suppress Democratic votes

Henry Olsen: The Democrats’ voting rights bill is an assault on election integrity