OPINION — What are the chances that Republican lawmakers will work with Democrats to make changes to restrictive voting systems in the United States that have benefited Republicans in recent elections, either deliberately or accidentally?
That’s going to be the question going forward for the House Administration Elections Subcommittee, which is holding a series of field hearings around the country to examine the 2018 elections and the fundamental question of whether all U.S. citizens have equal and unfettered access to the right to vote, no matter their income or ethnicity.
The subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. Marcia Fudge, on Tuesday travelled to Georgia, where the governor’s race last year devolved into a mess of accusations of voter suppression from Democrats and denials from Republicans, whose nominee, Brian Kemp, was not only running in the election but also overseeing it as the sitting secretary of state.
Tuesday’s hearing collected testimony that was both detailed and dramatic, painting a portrait of a Deep South state with a deep-seated problem of new barriers to voting that feel to too many Georgians like a replay of its Jim Crow past. Between the 2012 and 2016 election cycles, Kemp ran a system that allowed the closure of hundreds of polling places, purged 1.5 million voters from the rolls, and instituted an “exact match” standard for voter registration that disproportionately flagged women and minority voters for additional scrutiny.
“We are here because of what happened in 2018, and we are here because we are going to make it right,” Fudge told the audience Tuesday. “By the time we get to 2020, we are not going to be dealing with these same issues as we are today.”
The subcommittee heard from a panel of witnesses who described what they saw as systemic voter suppression and race-based intimidation leading up to the state’s 2018 midterm elections in November.
Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor and longtime voting rights activist, said she witnessed a “systemic breakdown” in the electoral process, including decades of actions by Kemp to disenfranchise minorities with a process “where incompetence and malfeasance operated in tandem.” Abrams recommended that Georgia immediately replace its aging electronic voting machines with paper ballots and review the laws governing voting in the state to restore confidence in the process. “When you have no faith in the system, you have no reason to participate in the system,” she said.
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Cliff Albright, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, recounted two high-profile incidents of voter suppression by Georgia state troopers in the days before the election, while Stacey Hopkins, a Georgia voter, told of her experience receiving a postcard to notify her she would be removed from the voter rolls as inactive, even though she had voted in the previous election. “This is a plea to Congress — please come in” and fix what’s broken, she told the panel.
As strong a case as the hearing made in describing barriers to voting in the state, it was impossible to ignore the glaring omission of Republicans from the proceedings. Not one participated as either a witness or a member of the committee. Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the subcommittee’s only GOP member, did not attend. And without a Republican member present, no Republican witnesses were called or questioned, including Kemp, who is now the state’s governor; Brad Raffensperger, the newly elected Republican secretary of state; or any current GOP officials, who hold every statewide office in Georgia and oversee most county elections boards.
Although Davis sent staff to observe both hearings, a spokeswoman for the congressman explained that he chose to focus his time this week on preparing for floor action on HR 1, the Democrats’ first major bill to move, which includes a portion dealing with the Voting Rights Act.
“Let me just say to my Republican colleagues, if you are listening, we want you to be a part of this process. If you are not, you do a disservice to many of the people you represent,” Fudge told me after the hearing. “They are welcome here, and people want to hear from them just as much as they want to hear from us. But if it is partisan, it is because they choose to make it so.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said he thinks voting reform can and will be bipartisan in Washington, with one crucial exception. “I think it will be bipartisan, because voting itself is not a partisan issue,” Richmond said. “It’s just that the person in the White House, the president, is making it that way.”
One of several Georgians at the hearing, Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop, said that it’s natural for public officials to want more of their own voters to show up on Election Day. “But every citizen in this country, regardless of their income and ethnicity, ought to be and is entitled [to] the right to vote, and the process cannot be used to exclude certain demographics of voters,” he said.
The reality is that Republicans will have to be a part of any effort to fix Georgia’s and the country’s voting problems. A good start would be for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to appoint more than one person to the subcommittee and for those people to participate in the committee’s hearings and legislation.
In a state like Georgia, where Republicans dominate the leadership, the GOP will have to both acknowledge voter suppression and lead the effort to end it.
The pattern of partisan fights over access to the polls is a dangerous dynamic with only one solution. Add the threat of Russian interference in American elections to the mix, which did not come up at the hearing Tuesday, and you’ve got a huge test heading into 2020, not just for Congress, but for American democracy as a whole.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.