It also comes as Congress turns its full attention to passing President Biden’s vast economic agenda — both a bipartisan infrastructure plan and a vast, separate expansion of federal social programs — that threatens to distract from the voting rights push.
The Democrats who attended Monday’s hearing said they intend to keep shining a light on the efforts by Republican legislatures that have already resulted in more than 30 laws that restrict voting in 18 states, according to the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab.
“What we did in Georgia, this last election in terms of turnout, should have been celebrated by everyone, regardless of political party, but instead it was attacked by craven politicians, more committed to the maintenance of their own power than they are to the strengthening and maintaining of our democracy,” said Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), who rode a wave of record Black turnout to win a Jan. 5 runoff election and now faces reelection next year under the new GOP-passed rules.
The Georgia state elections law, passed in March, was among the initial Republican-led efforts to overhaul elections rules passed in the wake of the 2020 election in response to former president Donald Trump’s false claims of rampant fraud.
The bill places new limitations on mail and early voting and restricts the number of ballot drop boxes. It reduces by more than half the amount of time that lapses before a runoff election. And one provision that has garnered outsize attention bars outside groups from offering any material assistance to voters waiting in line to vote, including water or food.
Witnesses testified about how they feared those provisions would disproportionately impact minority voters — and some said they were even more anxious about the prospect for partisan meddling in election results, thanks to new powers granted to the GOP-controlled state legislature.
Republicans did not call witnesses of their own, which they were entitled to do under the committee’s rules. In fact, no Republican senator traveled to Atlanta for the hearing — leaving the stage entirely to the five Democrats who attended and the friendly witnesses they had summoned.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the senior GOP member of the panel, declined to comment on why no Republican chose to participate. But a statement Monday from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that dismissed the hearing as a “partisan circus” encapsulated the GOP approach to the Democratic voting rights push, which has presented it as a federal overreach into state election issues motivated by raw politics.
“This silly stunt is based on the same lie as all the Democrats’ phony hysteria from Georgia to Texas to Washington D.C. and beyond — their efforts to pretend that moderate, mainstream state voting laws with more generous early voting provisions than blue states like New York are some kind of evil assault on our democracy,” McConnell said.
The names of two famous Georgians, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Democratic Rep. John Lewis, were frequently invoked throughout the roughly two-hour-long hearing — including by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the panel chairwoman, who put her party’s current fight for federal voting rights legislation in the context of a seven-decade struggle for civil rights.
“It has only been through the power of citizens standing up to the forces of oppression, through speaking truth to power that change has occurred,” she said, kicking off the hearing by calling on Congress to “meet the moment.”
While each of those testifying decried the new ballot-access provisions, multiple witnesses raised special alarms about the risk that, under the law, an election could be overturned entirely by partisan actors. Countermeasures against such “election subversion” is not included in the For The People Act, the Democratic bill that was blocked in the Senate last month, but Warnock and other senators have introduced separate legislation to address it.
State Rep. Billy Mitchell (D) told the panel that the Georgia law had in effect created “cheating umpires” by allowing the replacement of nonpartisan state and county officials with political appointees, “whose only concern is the will of the person who appointed them.”
“If they don’t like the outcome of an election, they can simply and immediately just take over the election board,” he said. “For that reason alone, these election laws should concern us all.”
Helen Butler, a voting rights activist and former member of the Morgan County, Ga., board of elections, described how she was removed from her elections position this month under the new law.
The provision, she said, “raises the specter that the goal will be to nullify the lawful vote of Georgia voters when the majority party is not satisfied with the outcome of an election, thereby achieving a result that the former president was unable to obtain in 2020.”
Another Democratic lawmaker, state Sen. Sally Harrell, described a rushed and partisan process inside the Georgia Capitol and accused her Republican counterparts of dissembling about the motivations and implications of the law, while a third witness, José Segarra, described spending hours in line on two occasions before he was able to successfully vote last year.
Harrell also highlighted a provision that allows any citizen to, for the first time, challenge an unlimited number of ballots, which she called a “form of intimidation,” while Segarra, an Air Force officer, asked the senators “to ensure that every eligible voter has the opportunity to participate, not just those of us who can take three hours off from work and stand in line.”
Republicans in Georgia — including officials who have debunked Trump’s claims of a stolen election, such as Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — have defended the new law as a justified step to restore public faith in elections and create uniform standards across the state’s counties. In some areas — particularly rural counties — the law is likely to expand early voting, for instance.
But the witnesses’ claims of voter suppression and discriminatory intent won a uniformly friendly reception from the U.S. senators present — Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), plus Klobuchar and Warnock.
“The devil is in the details in these bills, and if you’re looking for evil, you can find it pretty easily,” said Klobuchar, who highlighted various provisions such as a new requirement that voters write their birth date on mail voting envelopes and a rule that effectively bars voters from registering to cast a ballot in the weeks before a runoff. “I don’t care if you are White or Black, if you’re in a rural area, you’re suburban or urban, these rules hurt you — hurt working people that are trying to vote.”
Speaking in a museum devoted to the battles of the 1950s and ’60s civil rights movement, every U.S. senator present put the current fight in the context of that struggle — with Warnock calling the current state-level crackdown the most serious rollback of voting rights since the Jim Crow era and Merkley comparing the Georgia law to the poll taxes of yesteryear.
Ossoff, who along with Warnock narrowly won election in a Jan. 5 runoff, accused Republican lawmakers of “surgically targeting Black voters.” He shared his own experience last year of waiting 4½ hours to vote in a majority-Black precinct.
“These restrictions are not meant to solve any real problem observed in the administration of Georgia elections,” he said. “The only real problem for Georgia’s GOP is that they lost.”