The late Rep. John Lewis still looms large over Georgia politics.
One of the state’s new senators, Jon Ossoff, worked as Lewis’ intern and kicked off his campaign in 2019 with the Congressman at his side. The other, Sen. Raphael Warnock, preaches at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Lewis was a member of his congregation. One of the first resolutions to be filed under Georgia’s Gold Dome this year was a bipartisan resolution to honor Lewis with a statue in the U.S. Capitol.
Democrats are hoping President Joe Biden will further honor the civil rights icon by signing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, restoring key components of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Lewis shed blood for as a young man. Biden urged Congress to take action on the measure as a candidate.
“If they don’t, I’ve been saying all along, it’s one of the first things I’ll do as president if elected,” he said at a campaign stop in July.
Lewis served 17 terms in the U.S. Congress representing Atlanta before he died of cancer last July, but he is best remembered for the stand he took in Selma on March 7, 1965, the day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, when a peaceful civil rights march led by Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. met brutal resistance from police. Lewis and other demonstrators were badly beaten and arrested and a national outcry against the violence spurred President Lyndon Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act.
A week after that march, Lewis was with King watching Johnson introduce the act to Congress.
It opened the door for Black citizens to vote in Georgia and across the South, said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.
“If you go back and you look at how many Blacks voted in 1964, and then you look at how many Blacks voted in 1968 and 1972, it’s an exponential increase because the barriers that were being used to exclude Blacks from the franchise were removed,” she said. “The state was put under federal oversight to make sure that they didn’t institute any practices that, intentionally or unintentionally, were going to prevent Blacks from being able to exercise their rights.”
New standards for federal approval
Georgia was one of six states that required approval, or preclearance, from the U.S. Justice Department for any changes related to voting in 1965.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act on the basis that it singled out states with a history of racialized voter suppression at the time the act was passed.
The decision ended preclearance but left the door open for Congress to come up with a new standard that treats all states the same. Legislation passed by the U.S. House would require 10 years of preclearance for states or counties with a significant number of voting rights violations in the past 25 years. The House renamed that bill after Lewis following his death.
A similar measure, also named for Lewis, was raised in the Senate, but Republican Leader Mitch McConnell did not bring the measure to a vote in the then-Republican-controlled chamber.
But with Warnock and Ossoff joining the Senate last week, Democrats now control Congress, and the party sees a path forward for the legislation. Both of Georgia’s new senators have said they are committed to passing the legislation.
“Sen. Ossoff’s close relationship and bond with Congressman Lewis helped shape his steadfast commitment to fight for equal justice and voting rights, and the Senator remains focused on working in the Senate to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect every American’s sacred right to vote,” said Jake Best, press secretary for Ossoff.
Republicans could still scuttle the act through a filibuster, and the fact that the measure did not reach a vote under McConnell could be a sign the GOP is not inclined to support it, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.
On the other hand, Republicans could decide that opposing a landmark civil rights bill would be too big a stain on their image, Gillespie said.
At least one Republican senator, Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has signed on to the bill.
“A senator could try to filibuster, but do they want to be marked in history as the person who tried to prevent the Voting Rights Act from being reestablished?” Gillespie said. “Optically, is that what you want to do, especially since so many Americans venerate the Voting Rights Act and hold it up as a triumph of good over evil?”
Potential state changes
If the John Lewis Voting Rights Act becomes law, Georgia will likely be among the states requiring preclearance before lawmakers could change voting rules or counties could close a polling place.
Some Republican lawmakers have been calling for election changes following Georgia’s first statewide Republican losses in years when Biden won the presidency and the two Democrats won Senate runoffs.
House Speaker David Ralston formed a new special committee on election integrity at the start of this year’s legislative session. The Special Commission on Election Integrity is chaired by Harlem Republican Barry Fleming. Fleming and vice chair Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, did not respond to phone calls or emails requesting comment for this story.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office and Speaker Ralston’s office declined to comment on the effect a renewed Voting Rights Act could have on election changes in Georgia.
“Speaker Ralston is focused on legislation before the Georgia General Assembly and will leave federal legislation to our members of Congress,” said Kaleb McMichen, Ralston’s communications director.
Ralston has expressed skepticism about eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, but has backed other sweeping changes to the state election process, including amending the state constitution to make the secretary of state an appointed position.
Raffensperger has said he supports some measures to tighten absentee voting in Georgia, but pushed back against members of his party who made unfounded claims of major irregularities in the election.
Gwinnett County’s election board chair Alice O’Lenick has faced calls to resign after she said she wants the legislature to change state election laws to give Republicans a better chance of winning.
“I was on a Zoom call the other day and I said, ‘I’m like a dog with a bone. I will not let them end this session without changing some of these laws,’” O’Lenick said, according to the Gwinnett Daily Post. “They don’t have to change all of them, but they’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot at winning.”
A renewed Voting Rights Act would complicate Republican efforts to change Georgia election laws if it were in place, Bullock said.
“Proposals that we’re hearing talked about such as limiting or shortening the number of days for early voting would have to be precleared, a ban on using drop boxes would have to be precleared,” Bullock said. “Most of the things Republicans are talking about or trying to do, requiring a photo ID with your absentee ballot, would have to be precleared.”
And changes like requiring photo ID for absentee ballots would have a hard time finding approval, said Bryan Sells, an Atlanta attorney specializing in voting rights and election law.
“I don’t think that would likely pass muster,” he said. “Under the old preclearance regime, if Georgia were to seek preclearance in a court, I think it’s unlikely that it would be precleared. I think Georgia would be unable to prove that the move was not retrogressive for minority voters. I think it would be, frankly, easy to prove the opposite.”
Under a renewed Voting Rights Act, Georgia would need to seek permission before making even minor changes such as moving a polling place across a street. It would also be triggered by changes designed to expand access to the vote.
In the days of the old Voting Rights Act, lawmakers complained of additional red tape for small changes, but the act would provide a needed check on state power, said Democratic Rep. Josh McLaurin of Sandy Springs.
On Tuesday, McLaurin announced he would sponsor a bill with other Democrats to restore voting rights to Georgians who are disqualified because of felony convictions. That bill would require preclearance under a renewed Voting Rights Act.
“We build in checks and balances and oversight where we don’t want one government actor to make decisions all by itself, and when it comes to voting, legislators who are elected in partisan election are not fully trustworthy when it comes to deciding the shape of the electorate,” McLaurin said. “So no, I wouldn’t be opposed to preclearance, even if it applied to what you might think of as, quote, small changes or changes, like my proposal, which are designed to increase participation.”
The version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed in the House and stalled in the Senate would not be retroactive, and competing interests of state and federal lawmakers could lead to a race to change Georgia’s election laws before any new federal restrictions come into play, said American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young.
“It’s a tremendous concern, and I think that, frankly, if it had been up to me, that would have been the first legislation through the door, because the right to vote affects the access to all other rights,” she said. “And as we have seen, our democracy is not something we can take for granted.”
That’s a possibility, Sells said, but sweeping changes coming down the pike in Georgia would be likely to spur Congress into action.
“I think if the Georgia General Assembly rushes through some retrogressive reforms, you’d be more likely to see Congress act, and to unravel them,” he said. “I would also say that I think there’s a real prospect for federal reforms in Congress that are outside the John Lewis Voting Rights Act that would essentially nullify what the General Assembly is considering.”
For example, Congress could mandate no-excuse absentee voting in federal elections, and that would override state restrictions without relying on preclearance, Sells said.
Barring a new Voting Rights Act, changes to state election policy could also be challenged in court, said State Rep. Bee Nguyen.
“My hope is that Congress will make it a priority understanding that state legislators are currently in session and are going to be passing laws,” the Atlanta Democrat said. “But even if the Voting Rights Act isn’t passed ahead of the timing when we’re voting on our legislation, we’ll just see litigation in court. And I think some of this stuff would be resolved ahead of the 2022 elections.”
Republicans also run the risk of alienating voters by increasing barriers to the ballot, McLaurin said.
“The majority knows that if it pushes through unpopular changes to voting that are designed to limit participation, particularly voters that are not going to vote Republican, and that’s the point, voters are going to punish the majority, or, more specifically, voters will punish Republicans. “Especially right after Georgia delivered wins for Joe Biden, Jon Ossof and Raphael Warnock, if Republicans make a transparent attempt to limit participation now, voters will understand it, and they will remember.”
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