Senate Democrats target Georgia law to push voting bills in Congress

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Key Democratic senators visit Georgia for field hearing

Attempting to revive stalled federal voting rights bills, U.S. Senate Democrats built their case Monday in Georgia by using the state’s voting law as an example of the kinds of restrictions they’re trying to stop.

The rare field hearing of the Senate Rules Committee collected testimony from voting rights advocates and Georgia’s two Democratic Party senators who spoke against new voter ID requirements for absentee voting, limits on ballot drop boxes and the possibility of Republican-led takeovers of local elections management.

“They’re trying to find new ways to mess with the fundamental rights of citizens to vote,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota and chairwoman for the Senate Rules Committee. “The way you get at that, you’re supposed to find salvation from the Constitution and the federal government. This is that moment.”

But the senators didn’t provide a path forward to break an impasse over voting bills that would impose national standards for election access and restore federal oversight of voting laws. Senate Republicans blocked debate on sweeping voting legislation last month, and Democrats have been unable to overcome filibuster rules that require a 60-vote threshold for measures to advance in the evenly divided chamber.

ExploreHow Georgia’s voting law works

Georgia is one of 17 states with Republican legislatures that have passed voting laws after last year’s election and Donald Trump’s false claims that there was widespread fraud. Three vote counts, both by machine and by hand, showed that Democrat Joe Biden won Georgia by about 12,000 votes.

Republicans declined to participate in the hearing and instead shaped their own narrative about Georgia’s voting law.

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who founded the Greater Georgia voting group after her runoff defeat in January, called the field hearing “nothing more than a platform for liberals to grandstand, attack election integrity and lie” about the new law.

Speakers at the Democrats’ hearing, held at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, invoked civil rights legends Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis to characterize their efforts as a fight for basic democratic values.

They said confining drop boxes to early voting locations will limit opportunities for workers to return their ballots. Absentee ballot ID requirements will have a disproportionate impact on Black voters, a higher percentage of whom lack identifying documents on file with election officials. And potential state takeovers of county election boards threaten fair oversight.

“This is a recipe not only for voter suppression but for chaos in our democracy,” said U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who defeated Loeffler in a Georgia runoff in January. “But if we passed federal voting rights protections, which the Congress has the ability and the constitutional right to do, we can reverse these restrictions. We can provide a baseline for voting, basic standards that apply no matter what state you live in.”

ExploreWatch a replay of the Senate field hearing in Atlanta

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Senators heard from a voter who had to wait in line for three hours last fall, a legislator who opposed Georgia’s voting law and a civil rights advocate who was recently removed by her county’s commission from its local elections board.

Jose Segarra, an engineer at Robins Air Force Base, said lines in Houston County during early voting caused an older couple to leave and vote absentee instead, and another voter had to make arrangements for her child to be picked up from day care while she was stuck in line.

“This is wrong. It should not take so long to vote,” Segarra said. “Our government needs to ensure that we have adequate systems and processes in place to allow every eligible voter to cast their ballot without such undue burdens.”

ExploreAbrams, Klobuchar hold voting rights roundtable in Georgia

Georgia’s law’s limits on absentee voting will drive more voters to in-person polling places and exacerbate lines, said Helen Butler, executive director of the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, a civil rights organization. Voters who work late hours might not be able to get to voting sites during the daytime hours when they’re open.

“It definitely will make it more difficult. There are various hurdles that they will have to get across to even exercise their right to vote,” Butler said. “They may be able to get over the hurdles, but my God, what kind of barriers will they have to” overcome to get to polling places?”

Georgia Republicans said Democratic criticism was hyperbolic, arguing the voting law will expand the electorate.

“The truth is Georgia passed a law that strengthens security, expands access and increases transparency,” said Attorney General Chris Carr. “The bottom line is that now it’s easier to vote in Georgia than it is in several blue states.”

U.S. Senate Democrats are backing wide-ranging bills that would enact standards for early voting and automatic voter registration, provide more campaign finance transparency, limit partisan gerrymandering and create new ethics guidelines for federal lawmakers. Another proposal would empower the U.S. Department of Justice to vet state voting laws, as it did in Georgia and other states with histories of discrimination before a 2013 Supreme Court ruling.

The next steps for voting bills in Congress are unclear. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona oppose changing filibuster rules that would allow a voting bill to advance amid unified Republican opposition.

Klobuchar said Monday’s hearing provides evidence of the need for federal intervention that senators can use as they chart their course.

“The devil is in the details in these bills. If you’re looking for evil, you can find it pretty easily,” Klobuchar said. “We’ve got to be as sophisticated in Washington as the people who are trying to mess with us.”

About Georgia’s voting law

Drop boxes: Absentee ballot drop boxes will only be allowed inside early voting locations and during in-person voting hours. The number of drop boxes is capped at one for every 100,000 active registered voters.

Voter ID: Voters will be asked to write their driver’s license or state ID number on their absentee ballot application form and absentee ballot envelope. Voters who don’t have a driver’s license or ID card on file with election officials are able to return a copy of other identifying documents such as a passport, military ID, utility bill, bank statement or government-issued check.

Provisional ballots: Ballots cast by voters who show up at the wrong voting location before 5 p.m. on Election Day won’t be counted. Previously, Georgia law allowed out-of-precinct voters to cast provisional ballots and have their votes counted for races in which the voter would have been eligible in his or her correct precinct.

Food and water ban: Volunteers and organizations aren’t permitted to distribute free food or drinks to voters waiting in line. Refreshments can only be given to voters outside 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place and at least 25 feet away from any voter standing in line. Poll workers are allowed to install self-serve water receptacles.

State takeover: The majority Republican State Election Board has the authority to replace county election boards after a performance review. A temporary county election superintendent would have broad authority certify elections, fire staff, decide on voting locations, spend tax money and set policy.