Georgia Democrats press voting rights law that could change elections

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Marietta Democrat, pushed for provisions in proposed voting rights legislation that would prohibit chief election officials from participating in campaigns for candidates seeking federal office. Robin Bravender/Georgia Recorder

WASHINGTON — A year after Democrats in the U.S. House passed sweeping legislation that would have changed the way elections are conducted in Georgia and around the country, top Democrats mounted a new effort to cajole Senate Republicans into taking up the measure.

“The American people are fed up. We are fed up. We need big systemic fixes, and we need them now. That’s what H.R. 1 [the legislation] would do,” said U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) last week at a news conference. “It would end the corruption, tear down the barriers to voting and close the gaps in our election security.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described the legislation in historic terms. She recently marched with Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to remember the “Bloody Sunday” protests that helped clear the way for the Voting Rights Act in 1965. “It was the bridge to the ballot,” Pelosi said of the protests. She said Congress had an “obligation” to honor that fight by making it easier for Americans to vote.

Democrats maintain that their proposal has wide popular support, and not just from Democrats. It includes ideas like allowing voters to register to vote online, mandating early voting periods, changing how legislative districts are drawn, increasing disclosure for independent political ads and offering public financing for candidates running for federal offices.

Some provisions would be especially relevant to Georgia, where Democrats claim that actions by Republican officials deprived them of fair elections, particularly in the 2018 gubernatorial race. 

For example, Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) pushed for provisions that would prohibit chief election officials from participating in campaigns for candidates seeking federal office. The rule would prevent elections chiefs from running for office themselves, but also from serving on someone else’s campaign committee or helping those campaigns raise money. McBath’s proposal came after Brian Kemp, a Republican who was then Georgia’s secretary of state, administered the 2018 election in which he was running for governor. Kemp won that race by less than 1 percentage point.

Separately, Lewis helped draft parts of the legislation that would largely ban states from purging voters who had not voted in recent elections or did not respond to mailings. That came after the secretary of state’s office under Kemp removed 1.4 million names from Georgia’s voter registration rolls between 2012 and 2018, with nearly half coming during 2017 alone.

Voter purges remain a contentious issue in Georgia. In December, a federal judge ruled that the secretary of state’s office did not have to reinstate nearly 100,000 voters who had been purged for inactivity. Fair Fight Action, a group founded by Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who lost to Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial race, challenged the mass removals. It convinced Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to reinstate 22,000 people but not nearly 100,000 others. 

“Despite activists’ efforts and lawsuits that only waste taxpayer dollars, Georgia is continuing to ensure every eligible voter can vote and voter lists remain accurate,” Raffensperger said in a statement after the ruling.

‘Anger into energy’

Congressional Democrats have repeatedly tried to prod the Senate to act on their voting rights legislation. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is adamantly opposed to the legislation. He has called it a “political power grab” by Democrats (every Democrat in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate supports the measure). McConnell has repeatedly promised not to allow the Senate to vote on the proposal.

But advocates in Georgia are pushing for many of the proposals that were part of the federal legislation at the state level, too.

Theron Johnson, the Georgia state director for All On The Line, a group pushing for an overhaul of the process the state uses to draw legislative and congressional districts, said the issues of voting rights and redistricting reform are tied together. “Ultimately, we want to ensure people have access to [a] ballot, so elected officials can be held accountable,” he said.

The 2018 gubernatorial election helped many Georgia voters see how intertwined many of the issues were, he said.

“What it did primarily was frame a lot of these issues for regular people,” Johnson said. “On the heels of the 2018 election, Georgians have been particularly and keenly aware of topics of voting rights and democracy.”

He added, “People are definitely still angry, but they’ve transformed that anger into energy.” He said activists are pushing for changes in the state legislature and at state board election meetings, while also keeping an eye on the upcoming elections. 

Legislators in both the Georgia House and Senate proposed constitutional amendments last year that would give the job of drawing new districts to an independent commission, rather than to legislators themselves. (The redistricting process occurs every 10 years, after the U.S. Census Bureau releases population data from its once-a-decade count of residents.) 

This month, Democrats in the state Senate unveiled a scaled-back proposal that would ensure that public hearings are held around the state during the redistricting process, and that lawmakers provide details about their proposed maps to the public. 

While those measures have not advanced, the Legislature did loosen the restrictions on inactive voters who were subject to being purged from the rolls last year.

“A lot of Republicans see the writing on the wall,” Johnson said. “Voting rights is a growing issue, and not just on the left.”