OPINION: A hearing about voting becomes a hearing about Stacey Abrams instead

(From left to right) Raphael Warnock, Stacey Abrams and Jan Jones. Credit: Alyssa Pointer/ AJC / AP
(From left to right) Raphael Warnock, Stacey Abrams and Jan Jones. Credit: Alyssa Pointer/ AJC / AP

Stacey Abrams has not declared her candidacy for Georgia governor in 2022, but in an extraordinary hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Abrams attacked Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature voting law, filleted the state Republicans lawmakers who helped pass it, and drew more fire from GOP senators than a presidential contender.

Abrams was one of seven witnesses at the hearing provocatively titled, “Jim Crow 2021: The Latest Assault on the Right to Vote.” Other witnesses included Georgia’s U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, and Dr. Carol Anderson, chair of African American studies at Emory University.

At the beginning of the hearing, it seemed like Georgia itself was on trial, or more specifically the Republican-led Georgia Legislature, as Democrats made it clear they have decided that Senate Bill 202, the state’s new election law, was dishonest in its origins and malicious in its intent.

“Why are states like Georgia making it harder for voters to exercise this fundamental right?”asked Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, the chair of the committee.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Senate’s longest-serving Democrat, said people in Vermont are worried about people here.

“People in my state look at what happened in the Georgia Legislature and they cannot understand that this is happening in the 21st century.”

Like the Democrats, Republicans had their minds made up, too, deciding ahead of time that the main offense at hand was the title of the session — “Jim Crow 2021,” rather than the details of the legislation being discussed.

“I’m disappointed and frankly shocked that the majority party and the chairman would choose such an inflammatory title for this hearing,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, pointed to data that showed 2020 produced the highest-ever turnout in a presidential election, without noting that the data came before the latest voting law was passed.

“You’re telling me about voter suppression? Give me a break!” Grassley barked.

In his remarks, Sen. Raphael Warnock called SB 202 “a full-fledged assault on voting rights,” and added that he’s asked himself what Georgia would look like had Congress not passed the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965.

“Surely I would not be sitting here,” Warnock said. “And maybe that’s the point.”

Rep. Jones forcefully defended the bill, which she said she helped to draft and pass, and hit out at the “entirely selective outrage” of Democrats and the media, who she said were more enraged by Georgia’s laws, than they are about more restrictive states like New York and Delaware.

“The shame is theirs to bear, not Georgia’s,” Jones said.

As the clearinghouse for bills on crime and punishment, hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee often get heated. The Tuesday hearing was no exception, especially as some of the Republicans’ heaviest hitters used their time to spar with Abrams over everything from her prior run for governor to the All-Star game.

“Ms. Abrams, do you support voter identification?” asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina. “Yes,” she said, adding that she opposes restrictive voter ID laws.

(SB 202 requires voter ID for both mail-in and in-person voting.)

Next up was Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “Is the Georgia election law racist?” he asked Abrams.

“I believe there are components of it that are racist,” she said.

“So you believe there were deliberate attempts to suppress the minority vote?”

“Yes,” she said, before Cornyn accused her of filibustering as she continued to talk over him.

When Sen. Ted Cruz came up, the Texas Republican went to Abrams as well, asking her twice if she still believes her own race in 2018 was stolen, as she said at the time.

She acknowledged that Kemp won, as she did in 2018 and said, “My full language was that the election was stolen from the voters of Georgia. We do not know what they would have done because every eligible Georgian was not permitted” to vote.

On another round, Sen Tom Cotton read to Abrams past statements she has made about the usefulness of boycotts to move an issue forward, although she spoke out against immediate boycotts after SB 202 passed.

“Do you regret your central role in causing Major League Baseball to withdraw the All-Star game in Georgia?” he asked.

Abrams received so many questions she eventually started sending them to other witnesses, who had received almost none.

“I would like to cede the rest of this to Dr. Anderson to connect the dots between Jim Crow then and Jim Crow 2.0,” she said in response to a query from Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California.

As Tuesday’s event proved plainly, very few Senate hearings are really about their stated topic. There is always a goal or subtext that the senators are building a record toward.

For Democrats, proving that states like Georgia cannot be trusted to manage their own elections will build the case for them to pass pending federal legislation like H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, even if it means ending the filibuster.

For Republicans, discrediting accusations of voter suppression will protect their own reputations when they inevitably stand against the Democrats’ voting rights bills.

And for both parties, the hearing was a rare chance to elevate both the hero and the villain in their voting rights and election integrity stories : Stacey Abrams.

On Tuesday, Abrams was the main character in everybody’s dramas. And her 2022 sequel is about to begin.

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