A Senate Rules Committee Hearing All About Georgia

The U.S. Senate Rules Committee held its first field hearing in two decades at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta Monday, as part of an ongoing Democratic push for federal voting legislation.

An attempt to bring a federal voting bill up for debate last month failed in the Senate without Republican support, but Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said she is committed to continuing the campaign — in part by drawing attention to state laws like Georgia’s that would be superseded by federal legislation.

She called Georgia’s Republican-led voting law “Exhibit A” among states that have passed voting restrictions and changes in the wake of the 2020 election.

“We are here to listen to people in Georgia about the changes to the state’s voting laws,” Klobuchar said. “And we are here to discuss why it is so critical for Congress to enact basic federal standards to ensure that all Americans can cast their ballots.”

No Republican Senators attended the hearing, nor did they send any witnesses to testify or defend the voting law. And given Senate Democrats’ slim majority, they need Republican support to pass the proposed legislation.

In a press call, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp called the hearing “only the latest in a long line of publicity stunts by Democrats to distract from their failures in Washington and attack secure elections in Georgia.”

‘Our fight has only begun’

Despite that lack of bipartisan support, the hearing went on, focused on the details of the state’s new law — including the manner in which it was passed.

Democratic state Sen. Sally Harrell recalled how Georgia Republicans substituted the bill which became law into an existing House bill, in effect bypassing the Senate committee process.

“The only vote that the Senate had on this new bill was to agree or to disagree with the changes made by the House. There was virtually no chance to debate this bill in the Senate committee or on the Senate floor,” she said.

Georgia Republicans have defended the law as expanding voting access and have cited the hours of public testimony that were heard during the vetting of various election bills in 2021.

One of the bill’s authors, Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming said Monday that SB 202 is “a great bill. We are proud of it. Whatever the opposition is saying about the law needs to be taken with a grain of salt.”

The 98-page bill that became law passed without a Democratic vote. It does many things, including newly required early voting hours, but it also adds restrictions on hours and locations of absentee ballot dropboxes and adds a new ability for the Republican-controlled State Election Board to “take over” problematic county elections management.

“Voting rights provides the framework in which all of the other debates about issues impacting our lives takes place: infrastructure, climate change, health care, you name it,” said Democratic Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock at the hearing.

Warnock and others have said eliminating the Senate filibuster rule could be a way to pass such legislation. But that idea also hasn’t garnered enough supportive votes to pass.

“We’re only in the beginning of this stretch,” Warnock promised. “Our fight has only begun.”

Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda said her organization’s voting rights work has changed since the Supreme Court overturned key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That law used to include a “preclearance” process which required states like Georgia to secure approval for voting law changes.

“Due to the lack of the preclearance process, we have been forced to spend even more time and resources fighting discriminatory voting laws and policies and practices at the state and local levels,” Butler said.

The law’s changes, including new ID requirements, she said, will affect voters of color and those who don’t speak English as a first language. “It is really aimed and targeted. If you look at all of the polling changes that happened within the state, those are targeted to people of color,” Butler said.

“These restrictions are not meant to solve any real problem observed in the administration of Georgia elections. The only real problem for Georgia’s GOP is that they lost,” said Democratic Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff of the law.

“But don’t take it from Democrats. Don’t take it for me. Take it from them,” Ossoff said, citing three Republican officials who stood by the integrity and security of the state’s election system, Lieutenant Gov. Geoff Duncan, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and top elections official Gabriel Sterling.