Abrams looks to push voting rights in Georgia, as Congress quietly works on a bill

Befitting her side gig as a novelist, state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, had a literary reference at hand on a visit last week to the nation's capital.

“Waiting for Congress is akin to waiting for Godot,” she said.

The topic was voting rights, an issue that seized national attention this year as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court tossing out the formula deciding which states require federal “pre-clearance” for all their voting laws.

After an initial burst of energy and a couple of hearings aimed at finding a new pre-clearance regimen – a notion many conservatives reject out of hand – Congress has gone silent.

Pre-clearance wasn’t the reason for Abrams’ visit to Washington, though. She was moderating a closed-door forum with legislators from around the country on state-level ideas to get more people into voting booths.

The event was sponsored by American Values First, a left-leaning 501(c)4 nonprofit with ties to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Abrams came out touting online voter registration and “portable” registration that moves with you in an address change.

“I have not spoken to anyone recently, but I have had conversations with Republicans in general about this, and the reality is access to smart voting is not a partisan issue,” Abrams said. Republican-leaning rural voters and seniors would benefit greatly from vote-by-mail or expanded early voting, she said.

Notably, Abrams does not plan to take aim – so long as Democrats are in the minority – at Georgia’s Voter ID law, which has been in place since 2007. Courts have upheld such laws, and they are mostly popular among the public, though voter ID critics accuse the laws of discriminating against the young and minorities, who disproportionately do not have driver’s licenses.

In fact, Abrams uses the law as a selling point for other reforms.

“If you have these strict voter ID laws, once you create those responsibilities, there should be no impediments to registering same-day,” she said.

The hope, she said, is that Georgia does not become a partisan battleground over voting rights the way Texas, North Carolina and Florida have in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, as Republicans have sought to cut early voting and impose other restrictions.

But as the AJC’s Ariel Hart, Jeff Ernsthausen and David Wickert report today, voting changes are happening on a smaller scale in Georgia now that Justice Department oversight is gone. At least two counties have decided to eliminate all of their polling places but one, a move some advocates fear will have an impact on black voters disproportionately.

It’s these kinds of under-the-radar changes that civil rights advocates most fear, as statewide moves will likely produce a court challenge.

Opponents of pre-clearance point out that all voting practices remain subject to court challenges under a still-robust Voting Rights Act and that federal oversight was outdated and seldom found problems.

But there is quiet hope in the civil rights community that Congress could well act, with bipartisan negotiators working behind the scenes on a bill that could be introduced around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday next month.

The involvement of U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., raises the prospect of significant Republican support for a Voting Rights Act update that can pass Supreme Court muster and bring back pre-clearance in some form.

It would be a landmark moment for a historically unproductive Congress more accustomed to Samuel Beckett’s never-ending wait.