In his first speech since winning the crucial Georgia runoff elections that helped sweep Democrats into control of the Senate, Sen. Raphael Warnock blasted the GOP-backed voting restrictions being pushed in states nationwide, including his home state.
"We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights and voter access unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era," Warnock said, urging Congress to protect voting rights at the national level by passing the "For the People Act," which the House passed earlier this month, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
"This is Jim Crow in new clothes," Warnock said of the laws being introduced in his home state of Georgia, which would repeal no-excuse absentee voting. Advocates claim the measure would suppress the right to vote and specifically target votes of color.
Warnock's remarks echo those of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who called the efforts "racist" and "a redux of Jim Crow in a suit and tie" on CNN on Sunday.
Warnock noted Georgia’s and the country’s history of allowing voter suppression against minorities and the poor, and he warned that some Republican lawmakers are trying to reopen those chapters with “draconian” restrictions he cast as a reaction against Democratic victories like his.
Democrats cast the "For the People Act" as a way to render most of the state GOP moves moot. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as of Feb. 19, 2021, state lawmakers have introduced 253 bills in 43 states that would restrict voting access; lawmakers in 43 states have introduced 704 bills with provisions that would expand voting access.
Republican leaders insist their approach, which follows former President Donald Trump’s false assertions that the 2020 elections were “rigged,” is needed to prevent voter fraud and reassure voters that U.S. elections are legitimate. Warnock is a co-sponsor of the Senate's version of the bill.
Warnock blasted that reasoning Wednesday as part of a “big lie of voter fraud as a pretext for voter suppression.” He added that “the same big lie led to a violent insurrection on this very Capitol,” as Congress met Jan. 6 to certify President Joe Biden’s victory.
Republican lawmakers in Georgia and other states are considering severely curtailing absentee voting; eliminating automatic and same-day voter registration; and cutting back on early voting opportunities, including Sunday “souls to the polls” voting days that are especially important to Black churches where parishioners lean overwhelmingly Democratic.
"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 in his speech. "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."
"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 added.
"Make no mistake, this is democracy in reverse," Warnock continued. Rather than voters being able to pick the politicians, the politicians are trying to cherry pick their voters. I say this cannot stand."
The bill, among other provisions, would make automatic voter registration the norm nationwide, effectively forbid racial and partisan gerrymandering of district lines, establish national baselines for absentee voting, make it harder for states to remove irregular voters from the rolls and expand public financing of elections.
Separately, Democrats in Congress want to restore key sections of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states and local jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to receive federal approval for their local voting procedures. The Supreme Court gutted those provisions in 2013.
Both the Voting Rights Act restoration and the wider bill face an uphill path in the 50-50 Senate as long the current filibuster rule requires major legislation to get 60 votes to pass.
Warnock did not opine on the fate of the filibuster or efforts to change it, but 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 added. "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."
Warnock’s selection as Senate sponsor for the overarching bill is both symbolic and practical because of Warnock’s historical significance as a Black senator from the Deep South and because of how much minority voters could be affected by various voting law changes.
"He knows what voter suppression is like in Georgia. He knows what they’re doing now," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “I think he’s going to be a very persuasive voice for Democrats and Republicans” on the issue.
Elevating Warnock also is a recognition from Schumer of how important Georgia is in the national balance of power, with Warnock and his fellow first-term Democratic senator Jon Ossoff winning Jan. 5 runoffs in the state to force an evenly divided Senate that allowed Vice President Kamala Harris to become the tiebreaking vote.
Warnock, who won a special election, must seek reelection for a full term in 2022. His bid will test whether Democrats have staying power in Georgia after decades of Republican dominance in federal elections.
At the least, the outcome of the legislative tussle over voting laws will shape voter turnout strategies for Democrats if they aren’t able to lean as heavily on absentee voting as they did in 2020.
Warnock didn’t acknowledge his own future political fortunes but used a considerable portion of his 22 minutes in the Senate well to weave his success and the ongoing legislative fights into the nation’s civil rights history.
A 51-year-old native of Savannah, Georgia, Warnock noted that Georgia’s two U.S. senators at the time of his birth, Richard Russell and Herman Talmadge, were “arch-segregationists and unabashed adversaries of the civil rights movement.” Warnock quoted violent, racist rhetoric from Talmadge and his father, Eugene, a Georgia governor.
In that same era, Warnock said, his mother worked in tobacco and cotton fields — generations after the Civil War and the 13th Amendment had ended slavery.
“Because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls in January and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” Warnock said, reprising a line he used in his victory speech.
Later, he noted: "I now hold the seat, the Senate seat, where Herman E. Talmadge sat. That’s why I love America."
Warnock finished his speech to thunderous applause in the chamber.
Voting rights advocates have lobbied major companies in Georgia, including Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, and Delta Air Lines, to come out against GOP-led efforts to restrict voting access in the state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.