U.S. Senate hearing on voting rights keeps focus on Georgia

WASHINGTON — It was clear even before Tuesday’s U.S. Senate committee hearing on voting rights began that Georgia would be the focus. Four of the seven panelists hailed from the state, and the title of the hearing mirrored Democrats’ criticism of the state’s new election law: “Jim Crow 2021: The Latest Assault on the Right to Vote.”

But the four-hour Judiciary Committee meeting focused largely on just one of the invited speakers: Stacey Abrams, the previous and likely future candidate for governor who now has a national profile because of her activism on voting rights.

Republicans grilled Abrams about her opposition to Georgia’s new law, which expands early voting in most counties but has several other provisions Democrats and voting rights groups have said make it harder to vote. Those changes include limiting access to ballot drop boxes, implementing new ID requirements for requesting absentee ballots, making it illegal to give food and water to people standing in line outside polling locations, and shortening the early voting period during runoffs.

And they questioned why she has described certain aspects of the law as racist.

“Do you believe the Republican majority in the Georgia House and Senate when they are making the changes to your state voting laws, do you think they’re motivated by trying to suppress African American vote?” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked.

Abrams replied that she believes that is the case for some provisions.

“I would not assume that racial animus is shared by every person,” she said. “But if the result is that racial animus exists and if it eliminates access to the right to vote, then, regardless of a certain person’s heart, if the effect is deleterious to the ability of people of color to participate in elections, then that is problematic and that is wrong and should be rejected by all.”

For most of the hearing, Abrams was the focus despite other Georgians serving as panelists, including U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, Emory University professor Carol Anderson and Republican state Rep. Jan Jones, the speaker pro tem.

Warnock and Anderson joined Abrams in criticizing the new state law and echoing the “Jim Crow 2.0″ sentiment embraced by Democrats in criticizing its provisions. Anderson said the changes approved by the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature was based on false allegations of mismanagement during the 2020 general election and runoffs when Democrats in Georgia were widely successful.

“The lie of massive rampant voter fraud is serving the same function today as it did during the rise of Jim Crow,” Anderson said in prepared remarks. “It stokes fear in a segment of the population that democracy is in peril, and, thus, provides cover for laws that target Black voters with race-neutral language.”

Both Warnock and Abrams said Congress should act to blunt the impact of Georgia’s law by passing its own set of election changes, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that would reestablish court review of proposed changes to election laws in states such as Georgia that have a history of discrimination. Republicans in Congress have used the filibuster to block the reestablishment of that process, known as preclearance.

Jones represented the other side. Republicans turned to her repeatedly to rebut claims about the state law made by Abrams and others. She pointed out that the law expands early voting during most elections in most counties. And she said the goal of the changes was not to make it harder for certain people to vote but to ensure the state’s election system made it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

Asked by committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, whether she believes there was fraud in the 2020 elections that needed to be addressed by an overhaul of state law that began as Senate Bill 202, Jones deflected to a critique of Abrams.

“I’m here to discuss what’s in Senate Bill 202, not relitigate the 2018 election in which my former colleague Stacey Abrams never conceded, nor am I here to relitigate 2020,” she said. “What I can say is that the bill does increase accessibility.”

Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, received time to make comments and ask the panelists questions. He used it to read aloud statements made by Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan defending the integrity of the state’s election system and describing the new law as “solutions in search of a problem.”

Still, as the hearing continued and other members were given a chance to speak, the attention always seemed to come back to Abrams.

She said she described the 2018 election as stolen because she believed the rules in place at the time did not allow every eligible voter to cast a ballot. She clarified that she supports voter identification laws but feels that some of the changes in Georgia are too restrictive. And she even addressed Major League Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star game from the Atlanta area.

Abrams said she told league officials that she didn’t think such a move was necessary but that she believes individuals should continue to express their concerns about the election law.

“While I certainly regret the decision that MLB made to remove their game from Cobb County, and the economic effect that it will have on Georgians writ large,” she said, “I support anyone who will try to stop this type of bad behavior, this type of racial animus, this type of voter suppression from happening in Georgia or elsewhere in the country, because to me one day of games is not worth losing our democracy.”