Hundreds of people marched in Atlanta on Saturday to support federal voting rights legislation — the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle over U.S. election laws.
Outside the King Center, supporters called on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — named for the Atlanta civil rights leader and congressman who died last year. Later, they marched past Ebenezer Baptist Church to the John Lewis mural on Auburn Avenue to honor the bill’s namesake.
Similar marches were scheduled in more than 40 cities across the country Saturday, the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington for civil rights. At the 1963 march, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Among other things, the proposed legislation would reinstate federal review of election laws in states that have a history of racial discrimination. Supporters say it’s needed to counter recent laws passed by Republicans in Georgia and other states that critics say will make it harder for poor, Black and other voters to cast ballots.
“Our vote will not be suppressed!” the Rev. Gerald Durley, who participated in the 1963 March on Washington, told the crowd. “Our vote will not be denied! Our voices will be heard!”
Supporters of the Republican laws say they address legitimate security concerns while still making it easy to vote. They say the federal legislation would be a needless intrusion on state and local authority.
“I don’t think we need a one-size-fits-all approach to anything, much less our elections,” said Stephen Lawson, spokesman for the group Greater Georgia, founded by former Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. “I think it’s a sweeping federal takeover of our elections that ultimately puts a lot of power in the hands of very few people in Washington.”
The voting rights bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives this past week. But it faces longer odds in the Senate, where Republicans can use the filibuster to prevent its passage.
The debate over voting rights is the latest fallout from last year’s contentious presidential election. Democrat Joe Biden defeated incumbent Republican President Donald Trump by a narrow margin in Georgia and several other states.
Trump and his supporters promoted conspiracy theories that Biden won because of widespread voter fraud. They filed dozens of lawsuits challenging Biden’s victories in Georgia and other states.
None of those lawsuits succeeded, and the evidence of fraud they cited was widely discredited. But the lawsuits fueled the suspicions of Trump supporters that the election was rigged. And Republican lawmakers in numerous states passed laws to address those concerns.
Among other things, Georgia’s law would impose new voter identification requirements, curtail the use of ballot drop boxes in metro Atlanta, reduced early voting days in runoff elections, allow unlimited challenges to voters’ eligibility and allow state officials to take control of local election offices after investigations.
Now Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation that would make it harder for states to restrict voting access.
The bill bearing Lewis’ name would require some states to seek federal approval before changing election rules. The “preclearance” provision would apply to states that have numerous voting rights violations over the past 25 years.
Among other things, the bill also would create new standards to determine whether state and local election laws make it harder for certain voters to cast ballots.
On Saturday, numerous speakers said the law is needed to prevent Republicans from suppressing the votes of minority citizens, who tend to vote Democratic.
“What this is about is making sure that everyone has equal access to the ballot, regardless of their ZIP code, regardless of their bank account,” U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who now represents Lewis’ district, said in an interview. “I know, as a black woman from the South, I wouldn’t even have the right to vote in this country had it not been for the federal government stepping in and making sure that everyone had access to the ballot.”
Republicans say Georgia’s new election law is not discriminatory. And they say it’s still easier to vote here than in many Democratic strongholds like New York.
At a Republican fish fry in Perry on Saturday, U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, warned the crowd that the federal voting rights expansion amounts to government overreach. In an interview, he derided Democratic “gamesmanship” in pushing the John Lewis measure on skeptical lawmakers.
“They know it’s not going to become law” because it can’t pass muster in the U.S. Senate. “We’re in very dangerous times right now, and they’re pushing very dangerous legislation.”
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.