OPINION: Tears in the Senate over voting and the past

State Sen. David Lucas wept in the well of the Georgia Senate Tuesday, pressing his eyes with a folded white handkerchief as he struggled to get through his remarks.

The Macon Democrat has served in the Legislature since 1975 and was one of the first Black lawmakers elected since Reconstruction.

He leaned on the lectern Tuesday as he spoke out against Senate Bill 67, a bill from Sen. Larry Walker, a Perry Republican, to require identification for Georgia voters to request absentee ballots.

“It’s amazing. I did not think I had to come to the well after 45 years of being in this body,” Lucas said. “But I want to tell you, we are going to fight.”

Fighting for access to voting in Georgia is nothing new for Lucas or any Black lawmaker in the Deep South.

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Lucas was serving in the state House in 2005 when the legislature voted to require a photo ID to vote in person, a move that many worried would make it harder for minorities to cast their ballots.

But along with the photo ID bill, Republicans also agreed to expand absentee voting.

Until then, voters needed an excuse to vote by mail if work, military service or another reason approved by the legislature meant that voting in person would not be feasible.

Cathy Cox, who was the Georgia secretary of state at the time, proposed no-excuse absentee voting both because it was popular, especially with suburban moms, but also because verifying a voter’s excuse was almost impossible for county election officials.

“They could verify the age of a voter, but they have no resources to verify the veracity of a person’s excuse,” Cox said. “They didn’t then and they don’t now.”

The thinking at the time, for many Republicans who voted for the overall measure, was that voting by mail without an ID would still be an option for the Georgians who lacked a driver’s license or state ID to go to the polls.

“They were connected in my mind,” said Ed Lindsey, a Republican member of the state House in 2005. “I thought it made sense to require a photo ID to vote. If someone did not have a photo ID, this would be an alternative.”

Republicans passed the measure and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue added his signature. Among the Republican yes votes for expanding absentee voting was David Shafer, then a state Senator and now chairman of the Georgia GOP.

But 16 years later, Shafer and other Republicans are now leading the charge to restrict, change, or trim absentee voting.

So what has changed since 2005?

For one thing, the popularity of voting by mail has exploded, jumping from about 5% vote of the vote in 2018 to 25% of the votes cast in the November election.

That pandemic-driven necessity is a change most lawmakers believe is here to stay.

The only other factor in elections that has changed, and drastically so, is Republican voters’ willingness to believe that Georgia elections are reliable and fair.

It’s true, as Republicans argue, that Democrats were also calling foul in 2018 after Stacey Abrams lost to Gov. Brian Kemp after Kemp remained secretary of state to oversee his own election.

Even after the bitter end to that race, Democrats are defending this one as fair and accurate. Two years and a successful election have given them more confidence in the results than any new law they might have written to right the wrongs of the past.

It’s likely that two more years and a successful election could have the same effect on Republicans voters, too.

But Republican lawmakers aren’t taking that chance.

Earlier this month, Shafer released the state GOP’s “Election confidence report,” which called for an end to no-excuse absentee voting, among multiple other measures that would restrict voting access.

And in the Legislature, more than 70 election bills have already flooded the House and Senate agendas in the 21 days they’ve been in session.

Walker’s SB 67 is one of the less restrictive bills from Republicans this year. Others would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting altogether or allow state officials to take over county elections if the county is deemed “underperforming.”

In Walker’s remarks pitching his bill, he acknowledged that about 3% of Georgia’s 7.6 million registered voters, or about 228,000, have neither a state ID nor a driver’s license number that would be required to request a ballot online. In that case, they would need to either vote early in person, vote on Election Day, or mail in a ballot request with a photocopy of a photo ID like a passport.

Walker called it “common-sense election reform.”

But Democrats had another name for it and all of the other measures that seemed designed to answer to Republican voters’ anxieties over the last election at the expense of voting access for the poor, disabled, and minorities.

“It’s called voter suppression,” said Sen. Gloria Butler (D-Stone Mountain), the Senate minority leader. “We thought Georgia was going forward, but this is taking us too far back”

Other Democrats who spoke tagged the GOP bills as an elaborate attempt to perpetuate “the Big Lie,” Trump’s baseless accusation that the election in Georgia was rigged against him.

“We all know what this is about,” Sen. Lucas said. “But I will not go home and tell people I took away their right to vote. Because that’s what this is.”