Senate Democrats on Tuesday renewed their push for a national expansion of voting rights, summoning leaders from the battleground state of Georgia to help build a public case that Congress should intervene to lower state barriers to voting.
At a heated hearing on Capitol Hill, senators quizzed elected officials, academics and advocates on the state’s new election law and dozens of others like it introduced in Republican statehouses since the 2020 election that would restrict ballot access. Their lead witness was Stacey Abrams, the Georgia voting rights activist who has arguably done more than any other Democrat to frame her party’s views of voting issues.
Over four hours of testimony, Ms. Abrams argued that Republican-led states like hers across the country were witnessing “a resurgence of Jim Crow-style voter suppression measures” targeting voters of color. She accused Republicans of acting with “racial animus” to tilt the electorate in their favor after former President Donald J. Trump lost Georgia and baselessly claimed he had been the victim of election fraud.
She warned that decades of gains could be rolled back if Congress did not step in.
“When the fundamental right to vote is left to the political ambitions and prejudices of state actors, ones who rely on suppression to maintain power, federal intercession stands as the appropriate remedy,” Ms. Abrams said.
Though the hearing before the Judiciary Committee was not specifically tied to legislation, it was part of a push by Democrats to use their hold in Washington to advance a pair of major voting bills that could counter hundreds of restrictive proposals in the states.
The first is a gigantic national elections overhaul, known as H.R. 1, that would force states to expand early voting and mail-in balloting, mandate automatic voter registration and neuter restrictive voter identification laws, among other measures.
The second bill, named after the civil rights icon John Lewis, would restore a key enforcement provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made it harder for states to target voters of color. It was struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court.
Republicans oppose both bills, but have trained their ire most directly on the election overhaul, which also includes a new public campaign financing system and a revamp of the Federal Election Commission. On Tuesday, they called it a gross federal overreach intended to help Democrats consolidate power, rejected accusations of racism and renewed vows to help defeat it in the evenly divided Senate.
“H.R. 1 is not about righting wrongs,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “It’s about power.”
In a sign of how polarized the debate over voting has become, the two parties even sparred over the title of the hearing itself. Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the panel, had labeled it “Jim Crow 2021: The Latest Assault on the Right to Vote.” Republicans called that historically inaccurate and accused Democrats — including President Biden — of cheapening the stain of violent racial oppression by comparing it to voting laws of today.
“It’s disgusting and offensive to compare the actual voter suppression and violence of that era that we grew up in with a state law that only asks people to show their ID,” said Representative Burgess Owens, Republican of Utah, adding that he had “actually experienced Jim Crow laws” as a child in the South.
Mr. Durbin conceded that Jim Crow “at its worst was more violent than the situation we face today.” But he insisted the goal was much the same.
“The bottom-line question, which we are addressing in this hearing, is whether there is a design or intent in legislation that is being passed in many states, including the state of Georgia, to limit or restrict the rights to vote of minority populations,” Mr. Durbin said. “I think that goes without saying.”
Republicans’ unified opposition spells certain trouble for any significant federal voting legislation. Democrats would have to persuade all 50 of their senators to vote for the bill and create a carve-out in Senate rules to pass it with just a simple majority, relying on Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote. But for now, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, has rejected that approach and called for bipartisan negotiations.
Democrats’ attempts to renew the Voting Rights Act appear to face odds just as steep. Republicans no longer believe it necessary to restore the stricken provision, which required federal approval of changes to voting procedures in parts of the country with a history of discrimination.
Without it, voting rights advocates say they have seen a proliferation of restrictive state voting laws like Georgia’s and must spend years in court trying to undo statutes that run afoul of the Constitution.
“Litigation is a blunt instrument,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “What pre-clearance gave us was to get out ahead of voter discrimination before it happened.”
Republicans repeatedly turned to their own witnesses to push back on Democrats’ proposals, including Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s long-serving top elections official and a Democrat. Mr. Gardner argued that his party’s attempted overhaul would backfire.
“Why should we be made to be like California in particular or other states?” Mr. Gardner said. “We have a way of doing it that works for the people of New Hampshire. The turnout is the proof that it works, and this kind of federal legislation is harmful to our way of voting.”
Jan Jones, the Republican speaker pro tempore of the Georgia House, mounted an energetic defense of her state’s new election law, saying that Republicans were merely “making it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
She said a provision barring third-party groups from providing food and water to voters waiting in line to cast their ballots was not a draconian tactic to suppress turnout, but an attempt to stop activists and candidates from using food and other goodies to sway voters.
A New York Times analysis identified 16 provisions in the Georgia law that either hinder people’s ability to vote or shift power to the Republican-controlled legislature.
Republican senators appeared just as eager to directly question Ms. Abrams, a Democratic star who may run again for governor in Georgia next year. Mr. Graham and Senator John Cornyn of Texas peppered her with questions that sought to portray her assertions about voter identification laws as contradictory, and her condemnation of Georgia’s statute as hypocritical.
“So voter ID is sometimes racist, sometimes not racist?” Mr. Cornyn asked, in a lengthy exchange.
“The intent always matters, sir, and that is the point of this conversation,” Ms. Abrams responded, saying that she supported some voter ID laws. “That is the point of the Jim Crow narrative. That Jim Crow did not simply look at the activities, it looked at the intent.”
Polling shows that the public generally supports such laws, but voting rights advocates argue they can make it harder for some people of color to vote.
Mr. Cornyn kept rephrasing the question. Ms. Abrams pushed back.
“Senator, I am happy to respond to your questions, but if you are going to mischaracterize my responses, that’s inappropriate,” she said.
Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, pinned blame on Ms. Abrams for Major League Baseball’s decision to move this summer’s All-Star Game from Georgia, saying her public criticism of the voting bill had played a “central role” in a decision that could cost her state economically.
Ms. Abrams vehemently disagreed, saying she had opposed the league’s move, but would stand by anyone defending the right to vote.
“To me, one day of games is not worth losing our democracy,” she said.