As Republican lawmakers across the US push dozens of bills to restrict access to the ballot, and Congress mulls White House-backed legislation that could amount to the largest expansion of voting rights since the civil rights era, GOP senators sparred with Georgia officials who have been at the frontlines of the voting rights battle.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday heard testimony from Stacey Abrams, who has galvanised voting rights organisers across the state and US in recent years, as Democrats argue that federal action is required to remove barriers that make it more difficult to vote and serve as an antidote to the more than 300 bills circulating in statehouses in at least 47 states.
Ms Abrams condemned the “resurgence of Jim Crow-style voter suppression measures sweeping across state legislatures” fueled by former president Donald Trump’s persistent lie that the 2020 presidential election was marred by widespread voter fraud.
She pointed out that post-Reconstruction election laws during Jim Crow did not mention race but were “surgically aimed at behaviours to limit access” that disproportionately impacted voters of colour. Democrats, including Joe Biden, have argued that the latest wave of election laws revive the Jim Crow era by making it more difficult for Black voters and voters of colour to vote.
“When the fundamental right to vote is left to the political ambitions and prejudices of state actors, ones who rely on suppression to maintain power, federal intercession stands as the appropriate remedy,” she said.
Republican Senators Tom Cotton, John Cornyn, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley and John Kennedy repeatedly asked Ms Abrams a series of questions to suggest she was contradicting herself, and whether she believes specific voting laws are “racist” or not.
“So voter ID is sometimes racist, sometimes not racist?” Mr Cornyn asked at one point.
“The intent always matters, sir, and that is the point of this conversation,” she said, after explaining that she supports voters using identification to access the ballot but has objected to “restrictive voter identification laws that narrow the set of permissible materials”.
“That is the point of the Jim Crow narrative,” she said. “That Jim Crow did not simply look at the activities – it looked at the intent.”
Asked by Mr Graham whether she believes lawmakers in Georgia who backed the state’s recent election law are racist, she said: “I believe the motivation behind certain provisions in [the bill] are a direct result to the increased participation of communities of color in the 2020 and 2021 election.”
“I believe there is racial animus that generated those bills,” she said. “I would not assume that that racial animus is shared by every person. But the result is that racial animus exists and if it eliminates access to the right to vote then regardless of a certain person’s heart, if the effect is deleterious to the ability of people of colour to participate in elections, then that is problematic and that is wrong.”
Mr Cotton also asked her whether she regrets her “central role” in Major League Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star Game from the state after passage of the law. Ms Abrams has repeatedly criticised the law but she did not encourage the boycott, citing impacts to workers.
“I recognise the utility of boycotts, however I took a great deal of effort to explain that a boycott at this time is not the appropriate remedy,” she said. “I support anyone who will try to stop this type of bad behavior, this type of racial animus, this type of voter suppression from happening in Georgia.”
“One day of games is not worth losing our Democracy,” she said.