Liberal star Stacey Abrams said she supports voter ID, two senators debated the history of the Jim Crow era, and a Democrat secretary of state pleaded for his party not to pass a federal takeover of elections.
These and other interactions occurred Tuesday at an eventful Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the Democrat majority titled “Jim Crow 2021: The Latest Assault on the Right to Vote.”
That title alone prompted some lawmakers, black and white, to take umbrage at trivializing a violent and bigoted era of American history.
The focus of the Senate hearing was Georgia’s new election integrity law, which requires voters to present identification in submitting absentee ballots, such as a driver’s license number; codifies ballot drop boxes; and expands weekend voting.
The new law also slightly reduces the number of days for early voting from 19 to 17 and gives voters an earlier deadline to mail absentee ballots.
President Joe Biden, Abrams, congressional Democrats, and activists on the left have called Georgia’s new law a modern “Jim Crow” measure.
Here are six highlights from the hearing.
1. ‘True Racism’
Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, who is black, noted that he lived during the Jim Crow era, when state and local laws shut blacks out of elections as well as employment, housing, and education opportunities. Comparing the Georgia law to such measures is “absolutely outrageous,” Owens said.
“True racism is this, the projection of the Democratic Party on my proud race. It’s called the soft bigotry of low expectations,” Owens told the Senate panel, adding:
President Biden said of the Georgia law, ‘This is Jim Crow on steroids.’ With all due respect, Mr. President, you know better. It is disgusting and offensive to compare actual voter suppression and the violence of that era that we grew up in with a state law that only asks people to show their ID.
The Utah Republican and former pro football player called the left’s characterization of black voters offensive.
“What I find extremely offensive is the narrative from the left that black people are not smart enough, not educated enough, not desirous enough of an education, to do what every other culture and race does in this country: Get an ID,” Owens said.
Jim Crow laws restricting voting required poll taxes or arbitrary “tests” for black voters before they could cast a ballot, including requiring them to guess accurately the number of jelly beans in a jar.
These overtly racist laws also restricted employment, housing, and educational opportunities for black Americans. The Jim Crow era included terrorist activity by the Ku Klux Klan, which committed violent and deadly acts such as lynchings against blacks, often with impunity.
Owens recalled that his father allowed him to participate in a demonstration at age 12 outside a segregated theater in Tallahassee, Florida, where he grew up.
“I was the youngest participant there,” Owens said. “Only 50 years later did I learn that my father parked the car across the street to make sure I was safe.”
Owens talked about segregated schools and restrooms before turning to how Jim Crow laws approached voting.
“Jim Crow laws like a poll tax, property tests, literacy tests, [and] violence and intimidation at the polls made it nearly impossible for black Americans to vote,” Owens said, adding:
The section of the Georgia law that has brought so much outrage from the left simply requires any person applying for an absentee ballot to include evidence of a government-issued ID on their application. If a voter does not have a driver’s license or an ID card, that voter can use a utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or any other government documents with the name and address of this voter.
If a voter cannot produce this form of ID, that voter can still cast a provisional ballot. By the way, 97% of Georgia voters already have a government-issued ID.
2. ‘Propagated Primarily by Democrats’
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, later educated his fellow senators on the legacy of Jim Crow, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., didn’t want to hear it.
Lee noted that during post-Civil War Reconstruction, many black members of Congress—all Republicans—were elected in the South. But after federal troops withdrew from the South, Democrat-controlled state governments established Jim Crow laws to prevent blacks from voting and other activities.
“This was a system of laws designed to hold black Americans back, hold them back in part because white Democrats in the South didn’t want them to vote and didn’t like the fact that they were voting as and being elected as Republicans,” Lee said. “Let’s not compare a voter registration law—one that makes sure dead people can’t vote—to that. We can do better than that, and we should.”
But Durbin argued that both two political parties changed.
“I will concede the era of Jim Crow in the South was propagated primarily by Democrats—southern Democrats and segregationists,” the Illinois Democrat said. “Political alignment changed in America starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Republicans became more dominant in those states for the most part. What we have today is the party of Lincoln is refusing to join us in expanding the Voting Rights Act.”
Lee responded to Durbin with more history.
“Republicans never ceased to be the party that believes the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments matter and that the inherent dignity of the immortal human soul is such that [it] should never be denigrated by subjecting someone, based on their race, to a lack of civil rights,” Lee said. “So, it’s not fair, it’s not accurate, to portray the two parties as having somehow crossed … Some Southern Democrats later became Republicans. That’s true. But it didn’t change the Republican Party’s alignment on this.”
Durbin came back to say, “The political alignment has changed. That’s obvious.” He argued that Republicans no longer back the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lee responded: “It is not accurate to say the Democrats support the Voting Rights Act and Republicans do not. We are talking about a particular application of Section 5.”
Durbin: “I happen to disagree with that.”
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was rejected by the Supreme Court in a 2013 ruling that determined state election laws did not have to be reviewed by the federal government.
3. ‘Unlike Anything We’ve Seen Since … Jim Crow’
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., expressed strong disdain for the law passed in his state.
“This is a full-fledged assault on voting rights, unlike anything we’ve seen since the era of Jim Crow,” Warnock told the Senate committee.
Warnock isn’t a member of the committee, but like Owens he testified as a witness. Neither Warnock nor Owens took questions from senators.
Warnock, who won a special runoff election Jan. 5 for his Georgia Senate seat, said his state’s new election law was predicated on former President Donald Trump’s claim that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential race.
“The truth is, politicians—in their craving and lust for power—are willing to sacrifice our democracy by using the ‘big lie’ as a pretext for their true aim: Some people don’t want some people to vote,” Warnock said.
Several Republicans on the committee objected to the hearing’s title.
After calling the Georgia law and other similar state proposals “Jim Crow” several times, Durbin later conceded that it was perhaps not exactly like Jim Crow.
“Jim Crow, at its worst, was more violent than what we have today,” Durbin said.
4. Abrams on Voter ID and a ‘Stolen’ Election
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., noted that a report by the 2005 Carter-Baker Commission determined that voter fraud wasn’t widespread but did occur and could affect the outcome of close elections.
“Absentee ballots remain the largest source of voter fraud. That’s what the Carter-Baker Commission said, not me,” Graham said in prefacing his question. “The Carter-Baker report recommended prohibiting third-party organizations, candidates, and political party activists from handling absentee ballots. That’s related to ballot harvesting.”
“My questions for Ms. Abrams: Do you support voter identification laws?” Graham asked Abrams, a Democrat who became an activist after losing Georgia’s 2018 race for governor.
“Yes,” responded Abrams, who has been a virulent opponent of the Georgia law. “There are 35 states in the United States that have had voter identification laws. In fact, every state requires some form of identification. What I have objected to is restrictive identification.”
Graham then asked: “Do you support the idea that voting should be limited to American citizens?”
“Yes,” Abrams responded.
Graham asked: “Do you support ballot harvesting? Are you familiar with that term?”
Abrams answered that perhaps at Native American reservations it is necessary for tribal elders to gather ballots.
When Graham asked about other circumstances, she said: “It depends on the situation.”
Later in the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, noted that Abrams has said the 2018 governor’s race was stolen from her, and wanted to know if she still held that view.
Abrams responded that Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, won under the rules in place, with caveats.
After some back and forth, Cruz asked: “Yes or no, do you still maintain the 2018 election was stolen?”
“It was stolen from the voters of Georgia,” Abrams said. “We do not know what they would have done because not every eligible Georgian was permitted to participate fully in the election.”
Cruz noted that black turnout in Georgia in 2018 was 56%, compared to 48% nationally.
5. Losing All-Star Game or ‘Losing Our Democracy’
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., noted that Abrams spoke with Major League Baseball executives in the days leading up to their decision to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta. She used the term “Jim Crow 2.0” to refer to the Georgia law 10 times, Cotton said.
“You described the law as Jim Crow 2.0 and you urged Major League Baseball to speak out. After its decision to withdraw from Georgia, you conveniently claimed you had strongly urged them not to boycott after the horse was out of the barn and the damage was already done,” Cotton told Abrams, who testified remotely.
The Arkansas Republican asked whether she regretted the corporate boycott that followed.
Abrams said that boycotts work, but that wasn’t her goal in this case.
“I took a great deal of effort to explain why I do not think a boycott in Georgia at this time is the appropriate remedy. But I do think it is important to reserve all civil disobedience rights when you seek to achieve the outcome of access and justice in the United States,” she said. “My conversations with Major League Baseball were very clear that I did not think a boycott was necessary. I was very intentional about my language.”
But she added: “To me, one day of a game is not worth losing our democracy.”
6. ‘Why Should We Be Made to Be Like California?’
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democrat, expressed concerns about congressional Democrats’ legislation, known as HR 1 and S 1, that would lead to nationalizing elections, eliminating state voter ID laws, and expanding the contentious practice of ballot harvesting, among other things.
“I don’t want Texas to have to be like New Hampshire or Arkansas or California,” Gardner, also testifying remotely, told the Senate committee. “But why should we be made to be like California in particular, or other states? We have a way of doing it that works for the people of New Hampshire. The turnout is proof that it works. And this kind of federal legislation is harmful for our way of voting.”
Gardner, first elected in 1976, is the nation’s longest-serving secretary of state.
New Hampshire, Gardner noted, doesn’t have early voting or no-excuse absentee voting. Still, he said, the state has among the nation’s highest voter participation rates.
He noted that because of such strong voter participation, the federal government granted New Hampshire an exemption to the National Voter Registration Act, better known as the “motor voter” law.
“We have rules that we have applied all these years and you can see how it has resulted,” Gardner said. “Four presidential elections in a row, the third-highest [turnout] in the country; the one before that, we were fourth in the country.”
He told senators that passing HR 1 and S 1 would undermine New Hampshire’s success.
“If you were to pass this, you’re completely taking away a process that has developed in New Hampshire for many, many years, works in the state. Why would you want to do it when the turnout is as high as it is?” he said.
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