Democrats see opportunity as states push new voting rules

Democrats see opportunity as states push new voting rules
© Getty Images

Democrats are seizing on the growing outrage surrounding a new elections law in Georgia, hoping to harness that anger to boost voter turnout and combat the hit at the ballot box they fear the new law — and others like it proposed in states nationwide — could bring.

The party’s top officials and activists have taken to describing a raft of fresh voting rules in Georgia as a 21st century iteration of the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation and suppressed the votes of Black Americans throughout the post-bellum South. Party leaders have also sounded the alarm in fundraising emails, casting the new laws and proposals as an existential threat to Democrats’ majorities in Congress.

And they’re closely watching states like Texas, where similar proposals have opened up new fronts in the battle over voting rights.

ADVERTISEMENT

“It’s a motivating factor for voters, but Black voters in particular,” Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, said. “They know every election is life or death for us at this point. If [Republicans] can limit our participation, they limit our ability to survive — to thrive.”

“The worst thing we can do is not fight,” he added. “Every time there has been an effort to suppress our vote, we’ve always fought and won. This is no different.”

Democrats can’t afford to lose their recent electoral gains in Georgia. The party is only one defeat away from losing its ultra-narrow majority in the Senate, and Sen. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockMaternal and child health legislation must be prioritized now Overnight Defense & National Security — Austin mandates vaccine for Guardsmen Biden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans MORE (D-Ga.), who just won his seat in a closely watched runoff in January, is up for reelection.

Other states pose a similar challenge for Democrats. In Arizona, where Republican state lawmakers are considering legislation that would make it harder to vote, newly elected Sen. Mark KellyMark KellyConservative group targeting Kelly, Hassan, Cortez Masto in multi-million-dollar ad blitz No deal in sight as Congress nears debt limit deadline Five Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee MORE (D-Ariz.) is slated to face voters once again. The same is true in Texas, where Republicans are targeting five Democratic-held House seats — enough to hand the GOP control of the lower chamber.

There are clear points of concern for Democrats tucked into the voting proposals making their way through state governments across the country.

In Georgia, the law signed by Gov. Brian KempBrian KempThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud Stacey Abrams launches campaign for Georgia governor Democrats anxious over Abrams silence on Georgia governor bid MORE (R) last month gives the Republican-controlled state legislature more sway over local election matters while also levying new rules around the use of ballot drop boxes and absentee voting. Democrats say that those provisions are geared toward curbing voter participation after record turnout in the 2020 elections.

But there may also be opportunity for Democrats. Many in the party point to Stacey Abrams’s efforts to register and mobilize voters after her loss to Kemp in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race as a model for combating what they see as systemic voter suppression.

Abrams was widely credited with helping bolster a series of Democratic victories in Georgia in 2020 and early 2021 and still commands a network of activists in the state that Democrats say can be mobilized to counter the recent measures.

Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and former surrogate for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Symone Sanders to leave the White House at the end of the year Briahna Joy Gray says Chris Cuomo will return to CNN following scandal MORE’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign, said that there’s little doubt that Democrats will mobilize their voters in response to restrictive election laws.

But he also cautioned against downplaying the challenge posed by new voting restrictions.

“Look, there’s no question that potentially the barriers that Republicans are erecting will be a rallying cry for messaging on the part of the Democrats,” Tasini said. “But still, the fact that you have to mobilize people based on voter suppression tells you that voter suppression exists and that these additional barriers will make it even harder.”

“Messaging only goes so far,” he added. “Mobilizing only goes so far.”

Still, Democrats have garnered influential allies and outsize national attention to their cause.

After coming under pressure from Democratic officials and activists, some of Georgia’s largest companies, including Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, publicly disavowed the state’s new voting law. And in perhaps the most prominent swipe at the new measure, MLB announced that it would pull its All-Star Game out of Atlanta, sending a warning shot to other states that are considering new voting restrictions of their own.

“It shows that people aren’t going to take these new restrictions lying down,” one Democratic strategist in Georgia said. “It shows that we’re going to be active and get our people out and that there are real consequences for suppressing the vote.”

Democrats in Washington also see the recent moves in Georgia and other states as an opportunity to pass their own voting legislation that they say could act as a counterweight to more restrictive election laws.

In a statement last month condemning Georgia’s new voting law, President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE demanded that Congress move quickly to pass the For the People Act and the John LewisJohn LewisDemocratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Obama, Dave Chappelle nominated in same Grammy category MORE Voting Rights Advancement Act, which together would reshape how elections are run in the U.S. and restore key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“This is Jim Crow in the 21st century,” Biden said. “It must end. We have a moral and constitutional obligation to act.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But if Democrats are hoping to use the battle over voting laws to motivate their base, so too are Republicans.

GOP officials and lawmakers argue that new proposals are necessary to restore trust in the country’s elections following a bitter and contentious presidential race in which former President TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE repeatedly blamed voter fraud for his loss to Biden. They have seized on the recent criticism from the business community as the latest example of what they describe as the political left’s “cancel culture.”

“In the same way that this will motivate our folks, this is motivating their folks,” Seawright, the Democratic strategist, said, warning that Republicans are “probably going to ramp it up even more” in the coming months and years.

“This is a red-meat, right-wing, race-baiting issue for them,” he added. “And they know it.”

There’s some evidence for that. A Morning Consult poll released this week found that a large majority of Republicans — 72 percent — approve of Georgia’s new voting law, while only 10 percent oppose it. Among Democrats, 59 percent said they oppose it and 23 percent said they support it.

Kemp issued a stern rebuke of MLB’s decision to withdraw its All-Star Game from Georgia over the weekend, saying that the new voting law was worth the legal and economic fallout facing the state.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I want to be clear: I will not be backing down from this fight, and neither are the people who are here with me today,” he said at a press conference on Saturday.

At the same time, former President Trump has joined the debate in Georgia, calling the recently passed law a “watered-down version” of measures that should have been put in place before the 2020 presidential election. On Tuesday, he called on his supporters to boycott companies that speak out against the new law.

Republicans have sought to counter the attacks on the voting-related legislation, arguing that the proposals are not as draconian as Democrats have claimed and dismissing the comparisons to Jim Crow laws as baseless.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight House sets up Senate shutdown showdown Biden says he doesn't believe a government shutdown will happen MORE (R-Ky.) slammed Biden’s characterizations of Georgia’s new voting law, saying that it was a “lie” to cast it as racist.

“The president has claimed repeatedly that state-level debates over voting procedures are worse than Jim Crow or ‘Jim Crow on steroids.’ Nobody actually believes this,” McConnell said in a statement. “Nobody really thinks this current dispute comes anywhere near the horrific racist brutality of segregation.”