OPINION: Elections in Georgia have consequences ... on elections

An extraordinary moment unfolded this week, when U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock went to the Senate floor to give the first speech of his Senate career, to warn his new colleagues about what is happening in the Georgia legislature.

Unlike many senators from Georgia before him, Warnock has never served in the General Assembly, so he has no old allies in the chamber to avoid offending.

And unlike any senator from Georgia before him, he is Black, of course, and a preacher. So he is steeped in the language of struggle and resistance and brutality, all combined in Georgia’s history in the name of access to the right to vote.

“Politicians in my home state and all across America, in their craven lust for power, have launched a full-fledged assault on voting rights” Warnock said. “They are focused on winning at any cost, even the cost of the democracy itself.”

Just as Warnock was making the case that legislative procedures have long been used to suppress Black votes, state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, was in Atlanta about to unveil a 93-page substitute to Senate Bill 202, a previously two-page elections bill, an hour ahead of a hearing convened to review the shorter, Senate-passed version.

Fleming’s new language would provide for sweeping changes to voting laws in Georgia. So would House Bill 531, Fleming’s other comprehensive overhaul of voting, which the House passed several weeks ago. As would Senate Bill 241, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan’s package, including an end to no-excuse absentee voting, which passed the Senate last week. As would a group of four bills endorsed by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, which passed the Senate before that.

If all of this has you scratching your head, you’re not alone.

When voting rights activist Cindy Battles learned Wednesday that the bill she’d come to the Capitol to speak against had been replaced by another in the amount of time it took most people to park their cars, she stood to call it “a Tolstoy piece of legislation.”

“I say that because it’s long, complicated, has drastic consequences, and makes me want to drink,” she said.

“Vodka?” Fleming asked, before pointing out that bill substitutions are not unusual, which is true, and moving on with the rest of the hearing.

He was joking, of course, but the process Republicans have used in the name of restoring voter confidence doesn’t inspire much confidence at all.

Where does this all end? And how should Georgians make sense of it until we get there?

There’s no way to Mari Kondo this mess. But the best way to bring order to the chaos is to understand that the old adage, “Elections have consequences,” is doubly true in Georgia right now. Elections have consequences on elections.

The bills moving in the General Assembly today are a direct extension of the chaotic 2020 elections and an obvious precursor to 2022.

The final result of the legislation may not be known until the end of session, as the clock strikes midnight on the 40th Legislative Day.

It could be mostly one bill or a concoction of several. It could also include entirely new language introduced for final passage with the overall package.

It’s all been done before.

The most important people to watch between now and then are House Speaker David Ralson and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, and, once the session ends, Gov. Brian Kemp.

All three have said plainly that they oppose the end to no-excuse absentee voting that the Senate approved as a part of SB 241. Other areas of agreement between the three could narrow a final product even more.

Ralston and Duncan also have the sole responsibility to appoint members to a six-member conference committee, three each from the House and Senate, to hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions of the final legislation.

Could Democrats be among the conferees to make their case for changes to the final bill? That’s unlikely, since only members who have voted for the legislation are usually tapped for conference.

And there’s no guarantee a conference committee will even be formed if the calendar runs down toward the end of session and the time a conference requires may not be feasible in the end.

One way or another, Republicans seem intent on delivering a major overhaul of Georgia elections to Kemp’s desk, and Democrats lack the leverage to stop them or even slow their progress.

Except in Washington, where senators, including Warnock, introduced H.R. 1 on the same day Fleming was swapping one bill for another.

The “For the People Act” would take a number of steps diametrically opposed to the changes Georgia is looking to make.

It would require automatic voter registration, not end it, as a Senate-passed bill would do.

It would also guarantee same-day registration, require paper ballots, and create non-partisan redistricting commissions to redraw congressional districts.

Separately, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights-era law that would require approval from the federal government before states, including Georgia, could change voting laws.

Both bills face an uphill climb in the Senate, where a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority would need to sign on to them, a wildly unlikely scenario in a 50-50 Senate.

But in his speech on Wednesday, Warnock said that Americans like Medger Evers had given up their lives in the name of Democracy and that it is time for the Senate to give up its conventions, like the filibuster, to do the same.

An end to the filibuster would make the federal elections bills possible, its proponents argue. It would also change the Senate fundamentally, an outcome, Warnock said, wouldn’t be a bad thing.

“We in this body, would be stopped and stymied by partisan politics? Short-term political gain? Senate procedure?” he said. “I say let’s get this done no matter what.”

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