voting rights

What Can Democrats Do About Georgia’s Voting-Rights Restrictions?

Stacey Abrams is at the forefront of efforts to fight Georgia’s new voting law, and may help overturn it as governor after 2022. Photo: Michael A McCoy/AP/Shutterstock/Michael A McCoy/AP/Shutterstock

Democrats in the Georgia legislature had no power to stop the Republicans who control the General Assembly and the governor’s office from enacting a sweeping new package of voting rules adopted to reverse the GOP’s 2020 election losses in the state. Yes, negative publicity about the changes and the underlying determination to reduce voting by troublesome pro-Democratic minority folks led Republicans to drop some of the most pernicious provisions of earlier bills, like abolishing Sunday early, in-person voting and abolition of no-excuse voting by mail. But now that the deed is done, what can the law’s critics do to undo the damage? There are three different avenues:

Go to court

Before the ink was dry on Governor Brian Kemp’s signature on the new law, voting-rights advocates (including the New Georgia Project, Stacey Abrams’s legendary initiative to register and mobilize minority voters) went to federal court to seek an injunction to halt implementation of the law. Renowned Democratic elections lawyer Marc Elias is representing the plaintiffs, who charge that the bill violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and also Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits state laws that dilute minority participation in voting and governance. Their case is buttressed by the rich record of public comments by Georgia (and national) Republicans justifying the new law as a way to turn back the clock on the political trends that carried the state for Joe Biden last November, and won the Senate for Democrats in two January runoffs.

Aside from aggrieved individuals, the Justice Deparment can join or launch Article 2 lawsuits, and it’s likely that Merrick Garland’s federal law-enforcement agency will do just that. The likelihood that other state legislatures controlled by Republicans will join Georgia in cracking down on voting opportunities could create a powerful basis for litigation in the federal courts, though no one should imagine the U.S. Supreme Court — led by Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the 2013 opinion gutting the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act that paved the way for Georgia’s actions — will be sympathetic.

Preempt state election laws in Congress

The Georgia crackdown on ballot access coincided with the beginning of Senate consideration of the For the People Act, a package of legislation solidifying and expanding voting rights in federal elections. If the bill is enacted, which seems unlikely but is still possible, this legislation would preempt much of the new Georgia law by requiring easy access to voting by mail, including the drop boxes and proactive mailing of ballots, which have now been restricted. It would also mean more generous in-person and voting-by-mail opportunities, limits on voter-ID requirements, and a host of other reforms not even on the table in Georgia. In effect, such legislation would set strong national standards for voting rights and election administration that would prevent the sort of race to the bottom Republican-run states are currently engaging in, as part of their effort to reverse the trends that gave Democrats trifecta control of the federal government.

Short of the omnibus reforms in the For the People Act, congressional Democrats could buttress voting-rights prospectively, perhaps by enacting the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the original VRA enforcement scheme. That would put a pause on voting-suppression measures by states with a history of racist election administration (like Georgia) until they are reviewed by the Justice Department.

Take back control of state government in 2022

The most definitive action Georgia Democrats and their allies could take to mitigate the damage wrought by the new law is to use it to mobilize voters to end Republican control of the state in 2022, or at least convince Republicans it’s smarter to expand their coalition than to deny the franchise to the minority voters they continue to alienate.

The odds are high that Georgia’s preeminent voting-rights champion, Stacey Abrams, will seek a rematch with Brian Kemp in 2022. Given the governor’s own extensive history of manipulating the voting rolls and election administration to further his own career, along with his signature on the new law, it’s very likely an Abrams–Kemp race will be, in no small part, a referendum on voting rights and a test of voter mobilization (and it’s possible Kemp himself will be purged by Trump allies who want to do far worse to the voting rights of their “enemies”). If Abrams joins newly elected Senator Raphael Warnock (who faces voters again in 2022 after winning a special election) at the top of the Democratic ticket next year, a broader party message of diversity and equal justice for a state long dominated by reactionary white men will be unmistakable.

What Can Democrats Do About Voting Rights in Georgia?