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Senate Democrats take voting rights push to Atlanta for hearing

US Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) took notes during a US 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.
US Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) took notes during a US 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

ATLANTA — Senate Democrats took their campaign for far-reaching federal voting rights legislation on the road to Georgia on Monday, convening a rare hearing in a state at the center of a national fight over elections.

At a field hearing in Atlanta, state lawmakers and voters decried the restrictive new voting law signed this spring by Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, as an attempt to disenfranchise Black and young voters and consolidate Republicans’ tenuous grip on power.

“There is much talk about not being able to give food and water to voters on line, but the actual law is much more abhorrent than that,” said Representative Billy Mitchell, chairman of the Georgia House Democratic caucus. “What I am most concerned about — and hope you come up with a solution for — is cheating umpires that these laws are creating.”

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But the hearing’s real aim is to sway a debate more than 500 miles away in Washington, where Democrats are trying to revive a stalled elections overhaul in the Senate to make it easier to vote and offset many of the changes that Republicans have pushed through in states like Georgia.

“If you just stay in Washington and get doused down and gridlocked out by our archaic procedures in the Senate, you lose sight of what you are fighting for,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in an interview.

An initial attempt by Democrats to debate their overhaul, the For the People Act, failed in the Senate last month in the face of unified Republican opposition. Now, Democrats are trying to retool, but it is unclear if their chances of success will improve as long as key moderate senators refuse to alter the Senate’s filibuster rule, which in effect gives Republicans veto power over their agenda.

The hearing at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights here is the first time in two decades the Rules Committee has convened outside the Capitol. Klobuchar has said additional field hearings will follow.

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Testifying in front of black-and-white photos of the civil rights movement, Sally Harrell, a Democratic state senator from suburban Atlanta, detailed a scramble by Republicans to draft and pass the state’s new law, SB 202, without input from Democrats or the public.

“In the nine years, I have served in the Georgia General Assembly, I had never seen such blatant disregard for the legislative process,” she said.

Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and a former county election official, told senators that she and another Black official had been removed from the county elections board at the beginning of the month after the new law gave Republicans the power to appoint its members.

The changes, she said, “raised the specter that the goal would be to nullify the lawful vote of Georgia voters when the majority party is not satisfied with the outcome of the election, thereby achieving an outcome the former president was not able to in 2020.”

And José Segarra, a former Air Force pilot in Warner Robins, described waiting in the state’s notoriously long voting lines November as he sought to cast his ballot. Other voters who had to report for work or could not stand for hours in the elements simply had to leave without voting, he said.

“Senators, this is wrong. It should not take so long to vote,” he said.

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Republicans on the Rules Committee, who have fought to stymie Democrats’ election overhaul in the Senate, did not attend the hearing. Nor did they invite any Republicans from the state to defend the law.

“This silly stunt is based on the same lie as all the Democrats’ phony hysteria from Georgia to Texas to Washington, D.C., and beyond — their efforts to pretend that moderate, mainstream state voting laws with more generous early voting provisions than blue states like New York are some kind of evil assault on our democracy,” Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said in a statement.