U.S. Sen. Cory Booker on Wednesday made his first stop in Atlanta since announcing that he is running for president. AJC/Alyssa Pointer.

In Atlanta, Booker pledges voting rights expansion

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker highlighted his pledge for sweeping new voting rules Wednesday during his first visit to Atlanta as a presidential candidate, saying that “outrageous and unacceptable” electoral policies led to flawed elections in Georgia.

The New Jersey Democrat said he would set up an automatic voter registration system that would allow more Americans to vote by mail, make Election Day a national holiday and restore the voting rights of former felons if he wins.

He fine-tuned his message for a Georgia audience, slamming Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republicans for what he called a “stunning and unacceptable” erosion of voting rights. And he drew a line between that vote and the Republican-backed anti-abortion “heartbeat bill” that Kemp will soon sign.

“What happens when you have undemocratic elections is you see people who are elected who don’t represent the people,” Booker told a crowd of about 150 people at Paschal’s, the historic Atlanta soul food restaurant.

With his visit, Booker seized on a familiar argument about voting rights that helped shape last year’s race between Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Throughout the contest, Democrats accused Kemp of leveraging state laws to suppress minority voters, and they slammed him for refusing to resign as secretary of state. Kemp and his allies said he was strictly adhering to state laws, some passed with bipartisan support, designed to protect the integrity of the vote.

Echoing Abrams, Booker earned ringing applause from the audience for describing Kemp this way: “The person who was supposed to be the referee was one of the players on the court.”

Democratic candidates have lavished attention on Georgia this election cycle, confident they can turn it into a battleground state. Many in the crowd once volunteered for Abrams’ campaign, and several said they were inspired to stay involved by her narrow defeat.

Also in the audience were several local Democratic officials, including state party Vice Chairman Ted Terry and state Rep. Shelly Hutchinson. Like most Georgia Democratic politicians, though, they are staying neutral for now in the crowded race.

Though this is Booker’s first visit to Georgia since he announced he was running for president, he’s built a network in the state over the years. He visited in 2017 to endorse Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and stumped last year for Abrams, calling her a “dragonslayer.” In January, Booker made a pilgrimage to Plains to visit former President Jimmy Carter.

Booker spoke for about 50 minutes, taking questions from students before posing for selfies with the crowd. He grew most animated when he was asked about ways to combat gun violence at colleges and schools.

His voice swelling with emotion, Booker told audience members they “should know what’s coming” if he’s elected president. Then he said he would press for new gun restrictions, which include background checks for all firearm purchases and a ban on assault weapons.

“If the (National Rifle Association) is going to do the bidding of the corporate gun lobby, I’m going to bring a fight to the NRA like they have never seen before,” Booker said. “I am not going to be a president who offers more thoughts and prayers.”

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