Senators squabble over voting rights, underscoring deep division on state efforts

Legislative action unlikely in Senate with filibuster still in place

Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, left, and Judiciary Richard Durbin, D-Ill., talk during the hearing on "Jim Crow 2021: The Latest Assault on the Right to Vote" on Tuesday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, left, and Judiciary Richard Durbin, D-Ill., talk during the hearing on "Jim Crow 2021: The Latest Assault on the Right to Vote" on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 20, 2021 at 4:51pm

A divisive Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday made it clear that Senate action on voting rights remains highly unlikely under the chamber’s current rules, as 47 states consider hundreds of proposed laws that would make it harder to vote.

Democrats likened the push for new laws in the wake of the 2020 elections to Jim Crow-era laws, using as a main example a Georgia law that changed rules for mail-in ballots and early voting.

It can take years and a lot of money for lawsuits to knock down provisions that target minorities, such as a South Carolina proposal to end early voting on Sundays that would effectively prohibit voting participation efforts favored by Black churches, testified Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The Justice Department used to be able to review new voting laws in states like Georgia that had a history of discriminatory voting laws, but the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted that enforcement provision of a landmark voting rights protection law.

“This is not a model that can be sustained in a healthy democracy,” Ifill said. “We need Congress to act.”

But several Republicans took exception to the “Jim Crow 2021” title of the hearing, and the hearing took a partisan and sometimes personal turn — a sign that the new Democratic majority might need to change filibuster rules if it wants to pass what Democrats consider one of their top priorities.

The debate over the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has simmered since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down Section 4 of the law. That section created a formula for how states with a history of discriminatory laws had to get Justice Department preclearance for new laws under Section 5. The conservative justices who formed the majority called it outdated and said Congress “may draft another formula based on current conditions.”

Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy has introduced legislation since 2014 that would update the law, and has named it after the late Georgia Democratic congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. Although the Senate voted 98-0 to renew the Voting Rights Act in 2006, Republicans have stood in the way of Democratic proposals to restore it after the Supreme Court decision.

“As we watch, almost daily, [as] states unleash a wave of ill-founded laws that restrict the precious right to vote — not protect it but restrict it — the oversight role of the government envisioned by the 1965 Voting Rights Act is more urgently needed than ever,” Leahy said.

Georgia’s new election law, called SB 202, has become a flashpoint in the broader discussion about how states run elections, whether the true goal of new laws is to ensure fair elections or enact barriers for minority voters, and what Congress should do.

That’s magnified because Georgia was a key part of former President Donald Trump’s efforts to use disinformation, unsupported allegations of voter fraud, political pressure and lawsuits to overturn his loss to Joe Biden, who won the state, the first Democrat to do so since 1992.

Georgia’s 98-page law, dubbed the “Election Integrity Act of 2021,” overhauls the state’s provisions on mail-in voting, early voting periods, ballot drop boxes and the powers of the secretary of state.

The speaker of the Georgia House, Jan Jones, testified in defense of the law at Tuesday’s hearing, saying her state still provides more voting access than other states. Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn called claims otherwise “performance art about a false narrative.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin said the Republican-endorsed Georgia law in response to the election is part of “the insidious effort to suppress the rights of voters of color,” which “has evolved and continued, most recently through a scourge of voter suppression laws introduced in state capitols across America.”

And in an exchange with Utah Republican Mike Lee, who pointed out that it was Democrats who enacted Jim Crow laws, Durbin laid the blame with Republicans.

“What we have today is the party of Lincoln which is refusing to join us in extending the Voting Rights Act, that used to be a bipartisan exercise,” the Illinois Democrat said.

The Judiciary panel’s top Republican, Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, said the Georgia law was not akin to the Jim Crow laws of Southern states but “a sensible, fair, commonsense effort they made to increase voter confidence in their election.”

“Baseless claims of voter suppression are just as corrosive toward democracy as baseless claims of voter fraud, and we heard too much about that from last November,” Grassley said.

Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock, who was elected as his state’s first Black senator in a January special election runoff, testified before the committee Tuesday and called for the Senate to act urgently on Leahy’s bill and a broader House-passed measure, HR 1.

Warnock said that after the swell in Democratic participation in the 2020 election, Georgia lawmakers “responded not in celebration but in retaliation.” He said that four other states also have enacted new voter laws and that a narrow analysis of provisions can miss the bigger picture.

“This is a full-fledged assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the era of Jim Crow,” Warnock said. “For all of their difference in exactly how they suppress the vote, what these bills all share is they are predicated on the big lie, that the outcome of the last elections were the result of fraud.”

And Warnock hinted that he thought the Senate should drop longstanding filibuster rules that give the minority party the ability to block legislation for bills that would protect voting rights.

“It concerns me some might hear the irony in protecting minority rights in the Senate without protecting minority rights to vote,” he said.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham noted that Democrats have lined up behind HR 1, a bill that he said “is not about righting wrongs, it’s about power. It’s about trying to grab power.”

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