Stacey Abrams backs federal protection as Georgia election bills draw more criticism

Stacey Abrams testified Thursday before a U.S. House committee to lend her support for new federal protections of voting rights. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Stacey Abrams testified Thursday before a U.S. House committee to lend her support for new federal protections of voting rights. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

WASHINGTON — Stacey Abrams says new federal protections for voting rights are needed because too many states, including Georgia, are trying to hinder access.

Legislation proposed this year by Republicans in the Georgia’s General Assembly would eliminate or limit automatic voter registration, early in-person voting and mail-in voting, Abrams said. These changes are unnecessary and amount to voter suppression, she told the U.S. House Administration Committee on Thursday, urging members to move forward with a bill that could prevent those changes from becoming law.

“Federal legislation and federal courts have been long necessary to permit actual access to voting for millions of Americans who happen to live in states where we do not have those who believe our voices should be heard,” Abrams told the committee.

The For the People Act is a wide-ranging voting, elections and campaign finance bill that Democrats say would strengthen American democracy and eliminate racial inequities. In addition to mandating early voting and automatic voter registration, it also would restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies, create independent redistricting commissions in every state and close dark money loopholes in federal law.

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The measure is such a top priority in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House and Senate that leaders in each chamber assigned it the first available bill number, H.R. 1 and S. 1. The House could vote on the measure as early as next week, but it has a more uncertain future in the Senate where Republicans might use the filibuster to thwart action.

Republicans on the House Administration Committee complained that Democrats were moving too quickly and not allowing enough time for input and amendments on a measure they describe as taking power away from states to determine how elections are run.

Thursday’s hearing did not include a vote on the bill and is likely to be the only committee discussion prior to floor action. Democrats said further deliberations weren’t necessary since H.R. 1 is similar to a bill the House passed in 2019.

Georgia U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk said there should be more time spent discussing the contents of the bill.

“If this legislation is as important as my good colleagues on the other side of the aisle, the majority, is saying that it is and it is so needed, then we need to have more vetting of this bill other than just one single hearing,” the Cassville Republican said.

Loudermilk was among the members who supported then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to reject Joe Biden’s Electoral College votes in swing states. He asked Abrams to explain why Trump supporters’ actions were any different than steps she took in 2018 to challenge the electoral process when she narrowly lost the governor’s race to Brian Kemp. Ten days after the election, Abrams acknowledged that she lost the election but refused to concede.

Abrams in response said that, unlike Trump, she never tried to throw out legitimate votes in hopes of overturning the outcome of the election.

“There is absolutely no correlation between what I did, which is to increase access to the right to vote, and what he attempted, which is to limit those who are allowed to participate in our elections,” she said.

Abrams was invited to appear before the committee because of her role as founder of Fair Fight Action, a voting rights advocacy organization she created shortly after that 2018 contest. That group has ramped up its opposition to bills filed in Georgia and other states that are perceived as attempts to roll back access to voting.

At the Georgia Capitol on Thursday, protesters opposed these voting restrictions that are rapidly moving through the legislative process. They’re fighting bills to require absentee ID, reduce weekend voting days, restrict drop boxes and eliminate outside election funding.

Dozens of people chanted “Black votes matter” and “protect our vote” as they circled the Statehouse, waving signs saying “stop voter suppression.”

“We have to vote by any means necessary,” Eric Richardson of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists told the crowd. “They cannot stop us.”

Two sweeping elections bills are expected to reach the floor of the Georgia House and the Senate for votes.

The Senate already advanced a bill this week requiring a driver’s license number, state ID number or copy of photo ID when voters request absentee ballots. But Thursday, senators debated backing off the idea of requiring voters to provide an excuse to cast absentee ballots. Georgia law has allowed anyone to vote absentee without having to provide a reason since 2005.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said he wants to pass laws that encourage voters to cast ballots in person, reducing the number of absentee ballot rejections and easing the workload of election officials.

“All we’re trying to do here is to make sure we can afford it, that the offices can manage it, and the voters can be certain their votes are counted,” said Dugan, a Republican from Carrollton.

Democrats called the bills a form of voter suppression, and they said restrictions on voting in the name of greater election security are unacceptable.

During a press conference by the Legislative Black Caucus, members said the reason these bills are moving forward is to reduce the large number of Democratic Party voters who turned out in November’s election, resulting in Trump’s 12,000-vote loss in Georgia.

“The only irregularity was that we showed up and showed out,” said House Minority Leader James Beverley, a Democrat from Macon.

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Democrat from Stone Mountain, compared the Republican-sponsored bills to Jim Crow laws that kept Black Georgians from voting.

“If you don’t want to be associated with the Jim Crow South, stop leading the charge to take us back there,” Butler said.

Outside the Capitol, Clarkston City Councilman Awet Eyasu said he came to the United States from Eritrea, where elections have not been held for decades. He said he voted for the first time in this country.

“Where I came from, I could not vote,” Eyasu told the crowd. “I don’t want to see that happen in America. I don’t want to see that happen in Georgia.”

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