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Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Sen. Mitch McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is explaining a remark made Wednesday in which he briefly compared "African-American voters" to "Americans" — and drew immediate criticism from congressional Democrats who argued he was separating out Black people from the rest of the country.
His office says he was referring to turnout rates among the electorate. But that didn't quell the outrage in some circles.
"This is 2022 and being American is not synonymous with looking or thinking like you," Virginia Rep. Donald McEachin said in a statement to McConnell on Thursday, part of a larger wave of backlash from Democratic lawmakers and social media users.
"Please take 19 seconds to watch this video to understand why we have to fight for voting rights for ALL Americans," California Rep. Judy Chu wrote on Twitter, sharing a viral clip of McConnell's comment.
The Kentucky lawmaker, 79, had been answering a question at a press conference about voting access and possible concerns from non-white voters.
"Well, the concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans. [In] a recent survey, 94 percent of Americans thought it was easy to vote. This is not a problem," he said. "Turnout is up. Biggest turnout since 1900. It's simply— they're being sold a bill of goods to support a Democratic effort to federalize elections. … This goes back 20 years, the excuses change from time to time."
McConnell also contended that Democratic states like New York have more election restrictions in place on voting than Republican states do.
The issue has been at the forefront of the Democratic majority's agenda in Washington, D.C., with many in the party and outside advocates arguing federal legislation is needed to ensure conservatives cannot impose undue restrictions at the ballot box — obstacles like who can use mail-in votes, what forms of identification are required and when polling places are open.
Republicans, in turn, say such legislation would amount to federal intrusion on a local process and that the voting changes they have passed into law across the country are about ensuring election security — despite the lack of any evidence of widespread fraud.
What's more, some GOP lawmakers claim, the laws they enact don't really affect turnout.
The matter is temporarily moot: Senate Democrats failed to revise the filibuster rule this week in order to pass a voting reform bill with their bare majority after President Joe Biden publicly urged them to do so.
"Here's one thing every senator and every American should remember: History has never been kind to those who have sided with voter suppression over voters' rights. And it will be even less kind for those who side with election subversion," Biden said in a speech last week in Atlanta.
Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Sen. Mitch McConnell
After McConnell's statement Wednesday — and the ensuing controversy — he provided a subsequent quote via a spokesman: "I have consistently pointed to the record-high turnout for all voters in the 2020 election, including African-Americans," he said.
His spokesman referred reporters to McConnell's history of discussing turnout and voting access legislation as well as Census Bureau data about Black voter turnout. For example, in four recent federal elections Black voters cast ballots at roughly the same rate as the overall American electorate, though a few percentage points less.
Overall election enthusiasm was also record-breaking in 2020, though voters were aided by changes like widespread mail balloting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, however, Republican legislatures have sought to undue this, saying it was an exception in a public health crisis.
Still, they insist, it will be easy to vote even after they "pare back" some of these methods that made it easier for people to vote.
"There's very little tangible evidence of this whole voter-suppression nonsense that the Democrats are promoting," McConnell said in 2020. "My prediction is African-American voters will turn out in as large a percentage as whites, if not more so, all across the country."
As The New York Times noted, however, Black turnout tracks less than white turnout: 4.8 points behind in 2016 and 7 points behind in 2020.
This kind of disparity, voting access advocates say, shows the cost of new restrictions that purportedly address fraud and security problems.
Last year, per the Times, 19 states passed restrictive legislation.
"It can't be that we are satisfied with disenfranchising 10 percent of the population because 60 percent of the population showed up," one advocate told the Times.