Voting rights: Deep philosophical divide underpins policy gulf

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp

After the bitterly contested 2000 presidential election recount ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court – thanks to Florida’s “hanging chads,” confusing butterfly ballots, and partisan chaos in the state’s courts – Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the Help America Vote Act.

The bipartisan law provided funds to states to get rid of those pesky voting punch-cards with the hanging chads that plagued the recount. Among other mandates, it also implemented several new safeguards, requiring states and localities to purge their voter rolls of dead people and anyone who had relocated out of state.

Republicans touted it as a law that made it “easier to vote and harder to cheat” while Democrats dubbed it the first civil rights law of the 21st century. It passed the House 357-48 and the Senate 92-2 after a nearly two-year vetting process.

A polar opposite political response is playing out in the wake of the tumultuous 2020 election results that placed Joe Biden in the White House and sent Donald Trump packing. The contentious election and the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by extremist Trump supporters convinced that victory had been stolen from them obliterated any lingering bipartisan consensus on how best to fix the nation’s voting laws to ensure voter participation while rebuilding trust in the system.

In reality, there was little agreement to build on – both parties have been moving farther and farther apart on this issue, and others, over the last two decades.

Those differences were on stark display last week during the first news conference of Biden’s more than two-month tenure. He rejected as “sick” and “pernicious” efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to impose new safeguards and rules on voting after most states offered expansive mail-in and absentee voting during the pandemic. Then he accused Republicans of blatant racism, labeling a new Georgia election law worse than the Jim Crow provisions that kept the South segregated before the civil rights era.

By the time Biden denounced that new law, civil rights groups had already filed legal challenges, with one calling on the PGA to pull next month’s Masters tournament from Georgia’s storied Augusta National Golf Club over the new law and for state-headquartered businesses, such as Coca-Cola and Delta, to speak out against it.

Asked about the strong words he used to describe the Georgia statute, Biden on Friday doubled down. He railed against a provision that would make it illegal to give food or water to voters waiting in line to cast their ballots and another that would cut off early voting at 5 p.m., which critics argue would harm those who often go to the polls after normal work hours. The president later Friday issued a statement dubbing the new state law “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”

Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist who lost a close election to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018 and refused to concede, was the first to invoke the harsh post-Reconstruction laws, labeling the new statute in her state “Jim Crow in a suit and tie.”

On Thursday Georgia state troopers arrested a Democratic state lawmaker who knocked on Kemp’s door to his private office while he spoke on live television about the voting reforms he had just signed into law. Rep. Park Cannon, who is black, was charged with two felonies – obstruction of law enforcement and disruption of the General Assembly. Cable news aired footage of the arrest and two officers removing her from the state Capitol.

Less than 24 hours later, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer accused Republicans of trying to disenfranchise minority voters.

“It is shameful that our Republican colleagues are proposing these ideas in 2020, the same kinds of states’ rights that have been used from time immemorial to prevent certain people from voting,” he said during a Friday Senate committee hearing on a far-reaching Democratic-backed federal election bill. “Shame, shame, shame.”

Then it was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s turn to speak. It’s Democrats who should be ashamed, he countered, for trying to push through a “partisan power grab” to cement many of the expansive mail-in and absentee voting provisions implemented during the pandemic while trying to jettison existing security measures, including removing dead people from registration rolls.

“States are not engaged in trying to suppress voters whatsoever,” McConnell countered. “This is clearly an effort by one party to rewrite the rules of our political system … for all 50 states from here in Washington.”

As for the Georgia law, Kemp flatly rejected the Jim Crow comparison – laws that included literacy tests and poll taxes designed to restrict African American voting, which were cast aside in the 1960s.

“I can truthfully look in the camera and ask my African American friends and other African Americans in Georgia to simply find out what’s in the bill versus just this blank statement of this is Jim Crow and this is voter suppression or this is racist, because it is not,” he stated in an interview Saturday on Fox News.

Confused by what all this means when it comes to voting in Georgia or other places across the country? That’s understandable. All the venom being spewed around the country is overshadowing the policy particulars of both the Republican-backed Georgia law and the Democratic voting rights bill in Congress. Democrats view the federal legislation, dubbed the For the People Act, as such a top priority that they labeled it H.R. 1 and S. 1, although House Democrats have been pushing a similar bill for the last couple of years.

The Georgia statute criminalizes “line-warming” – the practice of people aligned with a party or a candidate offering food or water to individuals waiting to vote. It’s an activity Democratic voting rights activists say has become popular as the GOP has reduced the number of polling places over the past 10 years, increasing the amount of time voters – especially those in black precincts – have to wait to cast their ballots.

“It’s criminalizing the normal activities you do to take care of our friends and neighbors,” Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight, the voting rights group co-founded by Abrams, told Rolling Stone last week. “When our neighbors are out there in an hours-long line and the League of Conservation Voters can’t go deliver somebody a granola bar.”

Conservative opponents counter that Democrats are purposefully over-hyping the water-bottle issue. Most states, they say, have some type of electioneering laws in place restricting people from approaching voters within a certain distances of polling places. Jason Snead, president of the conservative Honest Elections Project, also argues that long voting lines occurred during the 2020 elections because of state COVID limitations on in-person voting centers, something he predicted would likely fix itself in upcoming elections.

“Lots of particularly urban jurisdictions … made decisions to radically shut down the number of polling places,” Snead said. “And so, when you had people who had to vote in person on Election Day, they had fewer places to go to so they all had to go to one place. That’s why you have so long lines [in 2020].”

Democrats also blast the new Georgia law for imposing new rules on absentee voting, including requiring a photo ID and shortening the absentee voting window. Applications for mail-in ballots also would be due 11 days before the election instead of four – in line with a U.S. Postal Service recommendation of 15 days so there is ample time for voters to receive their mail-in ballots, fill them out and return them.

The law would cap the number of drop boxes at one box for every 100,000 active voters, and the boxes would be limited to county offices or early voting sites. The drop boxes would be operational only during regular voting hours. Election officials also would be required to provide “constant surveillance” of the boxes.

Though such limits may sound restrictive, last year was the first time Georgia allowed the use of any ballot boxes. If lawmakers had left existing law in place, those boxes would have disappeared completely, Kemp and others argue.

The clash over the country’s voting system has been building over the last several years as Democrats have pushed to expand the ways people can vote. Some states have begun allowing those below the age of 18 to vote in primaries (if they will turn 18 by the date of the general election) and have lifted restrictions on felons or those on probation and parole.

Democratic-leaning states such as Colorado, Oregon and Hawaii for years have allowed all voters to cast their ballots by mail, and national Democrats have been pushing to make the practice federal law. The For the People bill would specifically ban voter ID requirements while allowing same-day voter registration and ballot harvesting – the practice of paid political operatives and other designees turning in ballots on behalf of voters – changes most Republicans strongly oppose.

Now that Democrats control the House and Senate and mail-in voting was greatly expanded in every state last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, party leaders see an opportunity to make it the law of the land.

At the same time, many Republicans are still deeply troubled by Trump’s loss and believe voting irregularities or outright fraud were responsible for the outcome. A poll from the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs, released in February, found that 65% of Republicans don’t believe Biden’s election is legitimate.

Because Democratic election officials in many states were responsible for expanding the mail-in options, Republican legislatures across the country are trying to rein in those rules, utilizing the election law-making power the U.S. Constitution gives them. As of February, some 43 state legislatures had proposed more than 250 bills aimed at overhauling election laws, according to the liberal Brennan Center for Justice.

Democrats argue the new Georgia law will result in fewer votes for their candidates, especially among poorer and African American voters who helped carry the state for Biden in November. Democrats also narrowly won a pair of Senate runoff races in January, handing them control of the U.S. Senate.

But Kemp, who defended his state’s numerous recounts of the 2020 presidential election, denying Trump a win there, counters that lawmakers have a responsibility to protect the integrity of the system against even the perception that widespread fraud is undermining it.

“There is nothing Jim Crow about requiring a state-issued ID to vote by absentee ballot – every Georgia voter must already do so when voting in person,” he said in a statement issued Friday.

The angry verbal jousting over the Peach State’s new law continued over the weekend with Democrats continuing to label its backers as racist.

Fox New anchor Chris Wallace pressed Sen. Lindsey Graham on Biden’s strong words about the law and asked whether Republicans are going too far with these voting safeguards in several states.

“Any time a Republican does anything, you’re a racist; if you’re a white conservative, you’re a racist,” Graham complained. “If you’re a black Republican, you are either pop or Uncle Tom. They use the racism card to advance the liberalism agenda. H.R. 1 is sick, not what they’re doing in Georgia.”

The South Carolina Republican was less voluble when Wallace asked him “why on earth” would Republicans want to make it a crime to give water to voters in line.

“Well, all I can say is that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me – I agree with you there,” he remarked before continuing to slam H.R. 1 and S. 1.

Don’t expect the mudslinging to stop anytime soon. “I think it’s a race to the bottom,” Snead said. “I favor voter ID laws, but reasonable people can disagree and have an honest conversation about the pros and cons, the costs vs. the benefits. But you don’t go to the table and light it on fire and accuse the person opposite of being a racist and then expect to have a reasonable discussion.”

Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who won in one of the January runoffs and will have to face voters again in 2022, said he considers the passage of the For the People bill a moral imperative for Biden and Democrats.

“I think that we have to pass voting rights no matter what,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.

If Democrats can’t get Republicans on board, Warnock said it’s time to nuke the filibuster. “The ball is in their court,” he remarked.