U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, talks to Democrat Stacey Abrams prior to a hearing Tuesday before a House Judiciary subcommittee in Washington. Abrams testified in favor of restoring federal pre-clearance of voting changes by states, such as Georgia, with histories of voting discrimination under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Photo: Alex Wong
Photo: Alex Wong

Abrams urges Congress to update federal voting rights protections

The Democratic runner-up for governor said the court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder opened the door for states such as Georgia to institute a plethora of policies that have made it harder for people, especially African Americans and Latinos, to vote.

“The Shelby decision created a new channel for the troubling practice of voter suppression during a time of dramatic demographic change,” Abrams told members of a House Judiciary subcommittee.

Georgia and other states that were once required to run proposed voting changes by the U.S. Justice Department have since “raced to reinstate or create new hurdles to voter registration, ballot access and ballot counting,” she added.

Testifying before Congress for the second time this year, Abrams leveled criticism at Republican rival Brian Kemp, saying he oversaw an election system that purged thousands of inactive voters from the rolls, rejected absentee ballots under “trivial pretenses” and led to long lines at the polls. A group Abrams launched after last year’s election, Fair Fight Action, made similar claims in a federal lawsuit seeking the reinstatement of the pre-clearance requirement of voting changes for Georgia. The case is still pending.

Kemp, the secretary of state who defeated Abrams by some 55,000 votes last year, has dismissed her claims and said he strictly adhered to the state’s voting policies in order to safeguard against illegal voting and fraud.

Georgia’s Republican governor wasn’t at Tuesday’s hearing, but Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins said the Voting Rights Act provision that required federal involvement in state and local elections was “inconsistent with the central pillars of federalism.” He said the courts currently offer critics of voting laws adequate recourse and that Congress doesn’t need to step back into the debate.

Democrats rally

Abrams was one of three voting rights activists who told lawmakers Tuesday to update the formula that underpinned the Voting Right Act’s “pre-clearance” requirement.

In its 5-to-4 Shelby decision, the Supreme Court tossed out the nearly 50-year-old formula that had required Georgia and 15 other jurisdictions with histories of voting discrimination to pre-clear their proposed election changes with the Justice Department.

The justices ruled that the formula being used at the time was outdated, but they also left the door open for Congress to develop a new formula with more up-to-date evidence of racial discrimination.

Lawmakers, however, have yet to agree on an approach in today’s sharply divided Washington.

Abrams voiced support for a pair of recently introduced proposals, including legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights leader.

That bill, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, would set a new formula that applies to all 50 states and “hinges on a finding of repeated voting rights violations in the preceding 25 years,” according to a fact sheet. If enacted, it would once again give the Justice Department veto power over any of Georgia’s proposed voting changes.

The legislation has yet to be considered in the House, where Democratic leaders are trying to build a legislative record of hearings in order to bolster the bill’s chances of holding up in court.

Senior Democrats reaffirmed their support for the bill during a Tuesday press conference steps from the U.S. Capitol.

“This is about patriotism for America,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. “It’s about the right to vote, a sacred privilege contained in our Constitution.”

Several lawmakers cited Georgia’s 2018 governor’s race as a reason why the bill was needed.

“We must have the capacity and the ability to redeem the soul of this nation and set it on the right course,” Lewis said.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, pledged the House will pass “a new Voting Rights Act renewal with a new pre-clearance requirement” by the end of the year.

GOP resistance

Any voting rights bill, however, faces an uphill climb in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been sharply critical of a broader elections overhaul that Democrats have pushed in recent months.

The Kentucky Republican has dubbed that legislation — which would institute automatic voter registration for federal elections, expand early voting and bar voter purges, among other changes — a “naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party.”

“The whole package seems tailor-made by Washington Democrats to help their D.C. attorneys descend on local communities, exploit confusion and try to swing elections,” McConnell wrote in a Jan. 17 op-ed.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Abrams received friendly questions from Democrats and was largely ignored by the subcommittee’s GOP members.

The exception was U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee who once served with Abrams in the Georgia statehouse.

Collins sought to defend the voting rights record of Georgia’s GOP leaders and sparred with Abrams over her previous comments about immigrants in the U.S. illegally, as well as the details of the state’s “exact match” policy and past voter purges.

“Voter turnout is expanding mightily” in the state, Collins said. “Between 2014 and 2018, turnout among Hispanic and African American voters has soared, increasing by double digits in a state that more and more Americans are choosing to call home.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.

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