Senate hearing in Georgia highlights growing alarm over potential post-election meddling

·Chief National Correspondent
·6 min read

A U.S. Senate hearing in Atlanta on Monday highlighted the fact that Democratic concerns about new voting laws are rapidly shifting to potential post-election meddling by state legislatures.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., was the first speaker to address the Senate Rules and Administration Committee as it met in a rare hearing outside of Washington, D.C. And he highlighted his recently introduced bill that will make it more difficult for partisan state lawmakers to remove members of local election boards. That’s one way that numerous state legislatures controlled by Republicans are making it easier for them to possibly overturn election results they don’t like.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) speaks during a U.S. Senate Rules Committee Georgia Field Hearing on the right to vote at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights on July 19, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., at a U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee field hearing in Atlanta on Monday. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

A law passed in Georgia earlier this year, Senate Bill 202, has attracted national attention and much criticism due to provisions that make it harder to vote by mail, among other restrictions. But it also “allows partisan officials in the state Legislature to control our state board of elections and take over local elections. And it allows them to engage in these takeovers even while the votes are still being cast,” Warnock said.

“This is a recipe not only for voter suppression but for chaos in our democracy,” he said to the committee, chaired by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Warnock’s legislation would eliminate a provision in the Georgia law that allows an individual to challenge an unlimited number of voter registrations without “personal knowledge” of whether those voters are eligible. A conservative group challenged the eligibility of 364,000 Georgia voters last December, prior to the January runoff elections for the state’s two U.S. Senate seats.

Warnock’s bill would also add protections from harassment for election workers, and it would limit the removal of local election officials.

Georgia State Rep. Billy Mitchell, the chairman of the state House Democratic Caucus, was even more pointed than Warnock. He expressed support for the For the People Act, the major voting rights legislation spearheaded by Democrats for the past several months, which seeks to make voting more accessible and political spending more transparent. But Mitchell reserved his real alarm for laws that could allow for post-election shenanigans — an issue that has not received anywhere near the same amount of attention from the press or from Democrats in Congress as have the laws affecting voting access.

Billy Mitchell, Georgia State Rep. and Minority House Chair speaks during a U.S. Senate Rules Committee Georgia Field Hearing on the right to vote at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights on July 19, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
Georgia state Rep. Billy Mitchell at Monday's hearing. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

“I believe that ‘dark money,’ unlimited campaign spending, is wrong, and I hope you will be able to do something about it. ... I further believe that voter suppression is unfair and wrong, and hope you do something about it. But our grandparents and great-grands endured far worse, and we will use this to motivate our voters,” Mitchell said.

“But what I am most concerned about, and hope you come up with a solution for, is cheating umpires that these laws are creating.

“They are replacing elected officials in states and counties — who must concern themselves with the will of the voters — with political appointees, whose only concern is the will of the person who appointed them,” Mitchell said. “If they don’t like the outcome of an election, they can simply and immediately just take over the election board. These political appointees could overturn elections without fear of being held accountable by the voters.”

Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a civil rights group, testified that she had been removed from the board of elections in rural Morgan County, an hour or so east of Atlanta, after the state Legislature changed the way the county chooses members of the board.

Georgia state Sen. Sally Harrell, a Democrat, told the committee that the Republican-controlled Legislature had made these changes in Howard and other counties in little-noticed portions of the “local consent calendar,” which the state Legislature uses to package together many different small pieces of legislation that are hyperlocal. “It took us a while to catch on,” she said.

Zero Republican senators on the Senate Rules Committee attended the hearing, and the GOP also did not call any witnesses.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) (2nd R) speaks during a U.S. Senate Rules Committee Georgia Field Hearing on the right to vote at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights on July 19, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
Warnock, second from right, speaks during the hearing. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

In early June, Protect Democracy, which calls itself a nonpartisan antiauthoritarianism organization, released a report noting that 21 measures had been passed into law this year that give state lawmakers greater control over elections and the ability to punish election officials, and that there are 216 provisions in 41 states that had been proposed and are under consideration.

Many of these provisions are being pushed by Republican lawmakers who claim to believe former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims about the 2020 election being stolen.

Two scholars of democracy, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, wrote this month in the Atlantic that the legislation would “allow Republicans in Arizona, Georgia, and elsewhere to do something Trump tried and failed to do in 2020: throw out ballots in rival strongholds in order to overturn a statewide result,” and that “the new laws impose criminal penalties for local election officials deemed to violate election procedure.”

“This will enable statewide Republican officials to compel local officials, via threats of criminal prosecution, to engage in electoral hardball. Throwing out thousands of ballots in rival strongholds may be profoundly antidemocratic, but it is technically legal, and Republicans in several states now have a powerful stick with which to enforce such practices,” wrote Levitsky and Ziblatt, who co-authored the 2018 book “How Democracies Die.”

The two academics were among the more than 100 experts on democracy who signed a letter in June urging Congress to “do whatever is necessary — including suspending the filibuster — in order to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want.”

A voting rights activist holds a sign that reads
A voting rights activist holds a sign with the image of Rep. John Lewis at a rally in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, the first anniversary of Lewis's death. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In addition to Warnock’s bill, there is also discussion of Congress passing national standards for election administration — some of which is in the For the People Act — and of reforming the Electoral Count Act of 1887.

That law, which is derided by some scholars as muddled and unclear, stipulates how Congress should litigate a contested election. It has never been invoked, but the vagueness of the statute is an invitation to chaos or abuse, experts say.

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