Warnock uses first Senate floor speech to urge Congress to pass voting rights legislation

Sen. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockOvernight Defense & National Security — Austin mandates vaccine for Guardsmen Biden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans Democrats anxious over Abrams silence on Georgia governor bid MORE (D-Ga.) urged his congressional colleagues to pass legislation aimed at expanding voting access in his first speech from the Senate floor on Wednesday as a number of Republican-led state legislatures across the country, particularly in Georgia, have advanced bills that advocates say would make it more difficult to vote.

Warnock said hundreds of what he referred to as “voter suppression bills” have been filed in his state and others “using the big lie of voter fraud as a pretext for voter suppression” since January, when he and Democratic Sen. Jon OssoffJon OssoffDemocrats anxious over Abrams silence on Georgia governor bid Perdue on possible run for Georgia governor: 'I'm concerned about the state of our state' Top Senate Democrat calls on attorney general to fire prisons chief MORE (Ga.) unseated two incumbent Republicans in a pair of races that shifted control of the upper chamber to their party.

Warnock, who is co-sponsoring the “For The People Act,” a sweeping elections reform bill that passed the House earlier this month, urged Congress to pass the voting bill as well as 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 in order to protect voting rights.

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In Georgia alone, more than a dozen bills containing provisions that restrict voter access have been introduced, carried over, or pre-filed as of mid-February, according to the Brennan Center’s State Voting Bills Tracker.

Among those bills is legislation that seeks to end no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration, limit early voting on weekends and require more identification to vote absentee.

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Georgia Republicans backing the measures have argued that it is needed to boost election security and public trust in the state’s elections after former President TrumpDonald TrumpMedia giants side with Bannon on request to release Jan. 6 documents Cheney warns of consequences for Trump in dealings with Jan. 6 committee Jan. 6 panel recommends contempt charges for Trump DOJ official MORE spread unsubstantiated claims about widespread voter fraud as he sought to overturn the results of the presidential election.

However, Democrats and voting rights advocates have raised alarm over the Georgia legislation, with many saying it would make it unnecessarily harder for more Americans to vote. Some Democrats have also said they believed the measures come in response to their party’s wins in the recent runoffs and the presidential election in what was a reliably red state. 

Warnock, Georgia's first Black senator, said in his floor speech on Wednesday afternoon that the country is witnessing “a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve ever seen since the Jim Crow era.” He also referred to the spate of restrictive voting measures seen in his state and others as “Jim Crow in new clothes.” 

The senator, who was a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. previously served as co-pastor and where the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was a parishioner, also took aim at Republican-backed legislation in Georgia that would limit Sunday voting. Black churches in the state have previously used the day to increase voter participation among congregants with “Souls to the Polls” efforts.

“I was honored on a few occasions to stand with our hero and my parishioner, John Lewis. I was his pastor, but I’m clear he was my mentor,” Warnock said. “On more than one occasion, we boarded buses together after Sunday church services as part of our 'Souls to the Polls' program encouraging the Ebenezer Church family and communities of faiths to participate in the democratic process.”

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“Now, just a few months after Congressman Lewis’s death, there are those in the Georgia legislature, some who even dare to praise his name, that are now trying to get rid of Sunday 'Souls to the polls,' making it a crime for people who pray together to get on a bus together in order to vote together,” he said.

“Make no mistake, this is democracy in reverse. Rather than voters being able to pick the politicians, the politicians are trying to cherry pick their voters. I say this cannot stand,” he added.

In his calls for Congress to pass both the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, Warnock stressed that the voting legislation is “bigger than the filibuster” as more Democrats have come out in support of getting rid of the parliamentary procedure. 

While Warnock wouldn't share his stance on what the fate of the filibuster should be, he said that “access to voting and preempting politicians’ efforts to restrict voting is so fundamental to our democracy that it is too important to be held hostage by a Senate rule.” 

“It is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate, while refusing to protect minority rights in the society,” he said. “Colleagues, no Senate rule should overrule the integrity of our democracy, and we must find a way to pass voting rights whether we get rid of the filibuster or not.”

His comments come several days after House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said allowing the filibuster to be used to deny voting rights would be “catastrophic” as voting legislation awaits consideration in the Senate.