On one of the closing days of 2020, I was trying to talk to Georgia voting rights powerhouse Stacey Abrams about the impending Senate runoff elections, but she was trying to talk to me about what would come later: a crackdown on voter access by state Republicans to make sure nothing like Joe Biden’s win, or the coming victories (she predicted) of Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, could ever happen in Georgia again.
As I transcribed the interview, I typed, “…long discussion at 5:45 into what happens after. Transcribe later.” I’m embarrassed to share that, but that’s the news business; I was on a deadline covering the run-up to the runoff. Then I covered the Warnock and Ossoff victories, briefly. Then violent white supremacists ransacked the Capitol. Then a new administration took over. I did not “transcribe later.”
Until now. Because as usual, Abrams was right about the GOP’s 2021 playbook. Since those hard-won Senate victories, Georgia Republicans have been working overtime—not to figure out how they might appeal to the state’s rising majority of African American, Latino, and Asian-American voters, along with fed-up suburban women and college-educated white people, including the young. No, there’s been no postmortem, autopsy, no “what went wrong” exploration by the state party. They know what went wrong: Too many Democrats voted. So the focus is on keeping them from voting, by any means necessary.
Abrams saw it coming back in December. “Here in Georgia, Republicans have already told us that they want to eviscerate laws they created!” she told me. “They were the ones who allowed for no-excuses absentee balloting, who allowed for the use of ballot drop boxes. For years they were the ones using the system, and they were perfectly sanguine about it.” The very day we spoke, Cobb County had completed a GOP-demanded audit of the signatures on runoff absentee ballot requests. Out of more than 15,000 records reviewed, they found 10 irregularities—but all 10 voters were legally registered and eligible to vote. “The audit is proving the process we have works,” Abrams told me. “That’s the problem for them—the process works.”
She also predicted, correctly, that similar voter suppression laws would make their way through GOP-controlled legislatures in other 2020 swing states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin among them—that went for Biden. Indeed, Republicans have introduced 253 bills in 43 states in the first two months of this year to make it harder to vote, according to Ari Berman in Mother Jones.
But Abrams couldn’t have predicted the brazen sweep of the GOP’s coming voter suppression plan, featuring several dozen bills to limit ballot access. Separate House and Senate bills would not only end no-excuse absentee balloting and restrict the use of absentee ballot drop boxes. They cut the number of early-voting days—including Sundays, favored by Black churches for “Souls to the Polls” rallies—add new ID rules for mail-in ballots, and limit the time given to return those ballots. Most cruelly, they would make a state crime of “line-warming”—offering any kind of food or drink to those waiting in long lines, most commonly found in low-income neighborhoods.
The bills are still under debate; it’s not clear what provisions will make their way to Republican Governor Brian Kemp, and what he will sign. As I write, it’s possible that no-excuse absentee voting might be preserved. It also seems that a new wave of organizing by groups like New Georgia Project and Black Voters Matter targeting major corporations based in Georgia, from Delta Airlines to Coca Cola, has brought pain to voter-suppressing Republicans. The state Senate Ethics Committee is going to hold hearings on which bills should proceed from here this week. These legislators are under a national spotlight, and not in a good way.
Abrams has called the barrage of new legislation, which disproportionately affects Black voters, “Jim Crow in a suit and tie.” Now the longtime advocate of state and local voter organizing is looking to the federal government for help. The House-passed voting reform bill HR1 will never make it out of the Senate as long as filibuster rules require 60 votes, and a few Democrats, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, say they’ll refuse to abolish that requirement.
But Abrams and others are urging the Senate to create a new category of legislation that needs only a simple majority to pass (as budget bills do now): a “democracy exception,” if you will, for bills having to do with voting rights. Senator Jeff Merkley, who is sponsoring the Senate’s version of HR1, has suggested that an “election carveout” might get that bill, along with a new voting rights act named after the late John Lewis, liberated from the filibuster.
Coming off the high of passing the almost $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, Senate Democrats need to test their caucus’s mettle by considering these voting rights bills as soon as possible. They don’t necessarily have to go after the filibuster right away; a process to begin Senate committee hearings on the legislation would make clear whether there might be 10 Republicans who want to protect democracy, which is, sadly, unlikely. But seeing such obstruction in action might help Manchin and Sinema get over their fetish for bipartisanship.
A “democracy exception” makes a lot of sense, especially since GOP voter suppression laws, along with upcoming redistricting decisions that are heavily controlled by Republican state legislatures, represent an existential threat to the Democratic Party. They can conceivably gerrymander away enough congressional seats to make Nancy Pelosi House minority leader by 2023, even if Democrats continue to outvote Republicans, and imperil a Biden reelection in 2024 by disqualifying swing-state Democratic voters.
In Georgia, most advocates are focused on 2022, when Abrams is expected to reprise her 2018 run against Kemp, which she lost by 50,000 votes. Turnout like what the state saw for Biden in November and Warnock and Ossoff in January could make Kemp a one-term governor. On the other hand, there is some pressure on him to at least moderate the voter suppression bills headed his way, in order to have a fighting chance with swing voters and suburban women who will be appalled at the state party’s nakedly race-based “reforms.”
I’m not optimistic about that prospect—as secretary of state and as governor, Kemp has been known for using racialized measures to cull voter rolls and restrict polling locations. I have a hard time imagining him vetoing any of his party’s updated Jim Crow agenda. Abrams and her allies showed us how to turn a red state purple, at least. But they might need federal help to keep it that way.