Warnock: GOP voting restrictions resurrect ‘Jim Crow era’

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Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., left, accompanied by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., speaks during a news conference, before the vote on the Democrat's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Sen. Raphael Warnock, whose election as Georgia’s first Black senator gave control of the chamber to Democrats, used his first floor speech on Capitol Hill to blast a wave of Republican-backed measures that would make it harder to cast ballots in states around the country.

Warnock noted Georgia’s and the country’s history of allowing voter suppression against minorities and the poor, and he warned that some Republican lawmakers are trying to reopen those chapters with “draconian” restrictions he cast as a reaction against Democratic victories like his.

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“We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights and voter access unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era,” Warnock said Wednesday. “One person, one vote is being threatened right now. Politicians in my home state and all across America, in their craven lust for power, have launched a full-fledged assault on voting rights” and on “democracy itself.”

The first-term senator’s speech followed Senate Democrats’ introduction of a sweeping election law overhaul, called the “For the People Act,” that could override many of the restrictive measures that Republicans are pushing at the state level. Warnock is the Senate bill's lead sponsor. The House passed its version in the previous Congress and again last month on a 220-210 vote that fell along party lines.

Democrats cast their legislation as a way to render most of the state GOP moves moot. Republican leaders insist their approach, which follows former President Donald Trump's false assertions that the 2020 elections were “rigged,” is needed to prevent voter fraud and reassure voters that U.S. elections are legitimate.

Warnock blasted that reasoning Wednesday as part of a “big lie of voter fraud as a pretext for voter suppression.” He added that “the same big lie led to a violent insurrection on this very Capitol,” as Congress met Jan. 6 to certify President Joe Biden's victory.

Republican lawmakers in Georgia and other states are considering severely curtailing absentee voting; eliminating automatic and same-day voter registration; and cutting back on early voting opportunities, including Sunday “souls to the polls” voting days that are especially important to Black churches where parishioners lean overwhelmingly Democratic.

Democrats' federal bill, among other provisions, would make automatic voter registration the norm nationwide, effectively forbid racial and partisan gerrymandering of district lines, establish national baselines for absentee voting, make it harder for states to remove irregular voters from the rolls and expand public financing of elections.

Separately, Democrats in Congress want to restore key sections of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states and local jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to receive federal approval for their local voting procedures. The Supreme Court gutted those provisions in 2013.

Both the Voting Rights Act restoration and the wider bill face an uphill path in the 50-50 Senate as long the current filibuster rule requires major legislation to get 60 votes to pass.

Warnock's selection as Senate sponsor for the overarching bill is both symbolic and practical because of Warnock’s historical significance as a Black senator from the Deep South and because of how much minority voters could be affected by various voting law changes.

“He knows what voter suppression is like in Georgia. He knows what they’re doing now,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “I think he’s going to be a very persuasive voice for Democrats and Republicans” on the issue.

Elevating Warnock also is a recognition from Schumer of how important Georgia is in the national balance of power, with Warnock and his fellow first-term Democratic senator Jon Ossoff winning Jan. 5 runoffs in the state to force an evenly divided Senate that allowed Vice President Kamala Harris to become the tiebreaking vote.

Warnock, who won a special election, must seek reelection for a full term in 2022. His bid will test whether Democrats have staying power in Georgia after decades of Republican dominance in federal elections.

At the least, the outcome of the legislative tussle over voting laws will shape voter turnout strategies for Democrats if they aren't able to lean as heavily on absentee voting as they did in 2020.

Warnock didn't acknowledge his own future political fortunes but used a considerable portion of his 22 minutes in the Senate well to weave his success and the ongoing legislative fights into the nation's civil rights history.

A 51-year-old native of Savannah, Georgia, Warnock noted that Georgia's two U.S. senators at the time of his birth, Richard Russell and Herman Talmadge, were “arch-segregationists and unabashed adversaries of the civil rights movement.” Warnock quoted violent, racist rhetoric from Talmadge and his father, Eugene, a Georgia governor.

In that same era, Warnock said, his mother worked in tobacco and cotton fields — generations after the Civil War and the 13th Amendment had ended slavery.

“Because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else's cotton went to the polls in January and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” Warnock said, reprising a line he used in his victory speech.

Later, he noted: “I now hold the seat, the Senate seat, where Herman E. Talmadge sat. That's why I love America.”

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