US Republican effort to tighten voting rules sparks outcry

Elodie CUZIN
·4-min read
Now banned: Megan Dominy and her two children hand out bottles of water to people waiting in line to vote in the city of Smyrna, Georgia during the 2020 US election

US Republicans have sparked an outcry and accusations of racism as they seek to tighten rules for voting around the country after losing the White House and key Senate races last November amid a record voter turnout.

"Sick... despicable," President Joe Biden said Thursday after Georgia Republicans pushed through new limits on voting activities in the wake of Democratic successes in the state, helped greatly by African-American voters.

Among the reforms in the 98-page law that have provoked the most outrage is a ban on volunteers giving water bottles to voters who can be force to wait in line for hours in the southern state.

Biden beat Republican Donald Trump in Georgia, the first win for a Democratic presidential candidate in nearly three decades, and Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock ousted two Republicans in Senate races.

Those victories brought refocused attention on racial strains in Georgia, with its history of slavery and segregation and where Black people have faced decades of attempts to repress their votes.

Trump claimed falsely that he lost Georgia due to voter fraud arising from widespread early and mail-in voting encouraged under the Covid-19 pandemic.

And while the state's top elections official, a Republican, rejected Trump's claims, on Thursday Governor Brian Kemp signed the law, claiming its restrictions would make elections "secure, accessible and fair."

- 'Jim Crow 2.0'-

Georgia Democrats, as well as Biden, called the effort a revival of "Jim Crow" laws used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to repress the political and economic power of African Americans.

"More Americans voted in the 2020 elections than any election in our nation’s history," Biden said in a statement Friday.

"This law, like so many others being pursued by Republicans in statehouses across the country is a blatant attack on the Constitution and good conscience."

Stacey Abrams, who is credited with mobilizing Black voters in the state but lost the governor's race in 2018 to Kemp, called the new law "nothing less than Jim Crow 2.0."

"Suppression is the lazy man's way of winning an election," she said. "If you can't win honestly, push people out of the game, change the rules."

Georgia is one of at least 40 of the 50 states where Republicans are pushing new legislation to make it harder for people to vote, legislation which analysts said will impact poorer people, particularly Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans that tend to vote Democratic, more than others.

Many Republicans have echoed Trump's unfounded claims of voting irregularities.

But with early voting periods lengthened in the November 3, 2020 election due to the coronavirus, vote-by-mail expanded, and registration rules eased, the country saw one of its largest-ever voter turnouts.

In Georgia the new law will cut back the number of ballot drop-boxes to force people to travel farther to turn in a ballot, and make it harder to register to vote.

The Georgia law also gives the Republican-controlled state legislature more power to take control of local voting operations if problems are alleged.

And it says specifically that volunteers cannot distribute water or food to people waiting in line to vote, as volunteers and social groups did last year in the state in areas where lines to vote were long -- often mainly heavily African-American precincts.

- 'Lack of confidence' -

The text of the new law says that looser voting practices during the pandemic gave rise to a barrage of fraud claims leading in turn to "a significant lack of confidence in Georgia election systems."

Proposed laws in other states do many of the same things. In Arizona Republicans have proposed legislation that would make it harder for Native Americans, who live on often sprawling and isolated reservations, to get their ballots in on time.

To counter the trend, Democrats in Congress are pushing their own federal laws to strengthen the right to vote. The House has passed the bill and now it awaits action in the Senate, where the party's margin over Republicans is too slim to guarantee passage.

But the fight sets the federal government's oversight of constitutional rights against states which control their own voting procedures -- a potential showdown echoing the battles to ensure Blacks could vote several decades ago.

"The Republican voters I know find this despicable," Biden said Thursday, pledging to "do everything in my power" to stop the voting restriction efforts.

But Trump, who has hinted he could run for president again in 2024, congratulated the Georgia legislature for the new law.

"They learned from the travesty of the 2020 presidential election, which can never be allowed to happen again. Too bad these changes could not have been done sooner!" he said in a statement.

elc/plh/dw