'There is a solution': Senate Democrats hold rare field hearing in Georgia over voting rights

·5 min read

WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats are taking the fight over voting rights to the states as the issue becomes a hot topic.

With Georgia on their minds, Democrats on the Senate Rules Committee held a rare field hearing Monday in the Peach State, where lawmakers recently passed new election laws. Democrats say the new restrictions could disproportionately affect turnout among Black voters.

Georgia voting law explained: Here's what to know about the state's new election rules

The field meeting was the committee's first in two decades. Witnesses included Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who has been outspoken on voting rights, and a panel of voters and state lawmakers.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who led the group as the chairwoman of the Rules Committee, told USA TODAY the goal of being in Georgia is to "share the national light on what is happening here."

"You just can't do that by being stuck back in Washington, D.C., and all the procedural morass of very various things. I think one way you get out of the morass is by actually listening to real people's stories," she said.

The Georgia voting law shrinks the window for voters to request mail-in ballots, enacts new voter ID requirements, bans handing out food and water within 150 feet of a polling place, and shortens early voting in runoff elections.

But Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republicans have defended the law, insisting it actually expands access to voting – especially in rural areas – by guaranteeing a minimum number of drop boxes and adding another day of early voting in most rural counties.

"We are here today in Atlanta to shine a spotlight on what has been happening in Georgia and in states around the country to undermine the freedom to vote. Over 400 bills have been introduced, 28 have been passed,” Klobuchar said at the hearing Monday. She said that “exhibit A is the one right here,” referring to the Georgia election law.

"What we did in Georgia this last election, in terms of turnout, should be celebrated by everyone,” said Warnock, who won his seat in a runoff election after the 2020 race. “But instead it was attacked by craven politicians."

The Democratic senators rattled off a series of policies in the law they believe will hamper voting access, including more stringent requirements to register to vote; shortened hours of operation for polling sites; and a shift in election administration from the secretary of state to the GOP-controlled state Legislature.

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

Georgia Republicans were quick to push back on Democrats’ criticisms, arguing the bill was a necessary step at ensuring safety.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr pondered whether opponents “have even read the bill” during a state Republican Party phone call at the same time as the Senate Democrats’ hearing.

“The truth is Georgia passed a law that strengthens security, expands access and increases transparency,” Carr said.

The fight over voting rights has been a point of contention for Congress as at least 14 states have enacted laws restricting voting access after last year’s presidential election.

‘This is not a great outcome’: Supreme Court ruling brings fear of explosion in voting restrictions

More: Texas Democrats descend on US Capitol to lobby lawmakers on voting rights legislation

Among the voting laws popping up in states around the country is a Texas bill that changes early voting hours on Sundays, possibly affecting racial minorities. In Arizona, the divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld a controversial law that limits how voters may return absentee ballots.

This week and last, a group of more than 50 Texas House Democrats descended on Washington and have been lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill over voting rights legislation – all part of their latest effort to stop a vote on election changes in their state.

The lawmakers, who have battled Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the GOP-controlled Legislature in Austin for months over election changes, fled their state to stop a vote on the question. They turned to Congress, which is at odds on a pair of voting rights bills aimed at protecting Americans at the ballot box.

In Texas, the new legislation would limit voting hours, strengthen voter ID requirements, and calls for monthly review of state voter rolls. Republicans in the state say the legislation would curtail the possibility of voter fraud.

'It's a game of chicken': Texas Democrats' walkout has precedent, but will it work?

Lawmakers had been focused on the For the People Act – a sweeping piece of legislation aimed to counter regulations that opponents say make it difficult to vote – but it stalled in the Senate in June after it fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.

Now, state and federal lawmakers could be shifting their focus to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

More: Senate fails to advance sweeping voting rights bill aimed at expanding early voting, registration

Klobuchar told USA TODAY that in her discussions with the Texas Democrats last week, a large portion of their conversation focused on the bill that fortifies the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and bears the civil rights icon's name.

The Senate will be working this autumn on the legislation because more Republicans have expressed openness to it versus the For the People Act. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has yet to pass the House.

It would bring back the preclearance formula that would require jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression of minorities to obtain approval from the Justice Department or federal courts before making changes to election processes.

Klobuchar said she planned to hold more field hearings leading up to the debate and a possible vote on the John Lewis legislation.

More: Heirs to late civil rights icon John Lewis' vow to make 'good trouble' in fight over election laws

"I think that this (is) a way to get interest in this across the country because you can have discussions with the state officials that happens everywhere," she said. "But what we're trying to do is say, 'There is a solution.' And it should lie in Washington just like it did for employment discrimination and education discrimination. It sends that clear message that it's on our shoulders."

Contributing: Chelsey Cox, Ledge King, Phillip M. Bailey and Deborah Barfield Berry

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia voting rights hearing: Senate Democrats take issue to Atlanta