After two attempts to vote, Air Force veteran Jose Segarra still ended up waiting three hours to cast his ballot in last year’s presidential election.
On July 1, Helen Butler was removed from the elections board in Morgan County after a decade of service in the rural county east of Atlanta. She sees her forced departure as part of a larger ploy by state lawmakers to use the new voting law to gain greater control over elections in Georgia.
During the most recent Georgia legislative session, state Senator Sally Harrell said it was not unusual for lawmakers to be handed major legislation a few minutes before they were voted on.
“Over the last few years, I’ve watched as more efforts [are used] to suppress the vote. I’m constantly amazed at the creativity,” she said.
All three Georgians testified Monday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules & Administration about the Election Integrity Act, Georgia’s new, controversial voting law seen by many as a major roadblock for voters. The law also is referred to as SB 202.
Monday’s two-hour hearing — the committee’s first field hearing in 20 years — was at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. It capped a weekend visit in metro Atlanta by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and other committee members, including Sen. Jon Ossoff. They heard concerns from Georgians who believe the new laws are restrictive in nature. In some cases, some voters waited six to seven hours in line to vote.
Republican lawmakers were invited to the hearing and given the opportunity to present witnesses, Klobuchar noted, although none attended.
Gov. Brian Kemp however responded with a two-minute video on Twitter to the Congressional visit shortly after it ended Monday.
“Today, Washington Democrats continued their false attacks on Georgia’s Election Integrity Act with more lies about what our bill does. After months of Pinnochios (sic) and fact checks, it is obvious they still have not actually read SB 202,” Kemp tweeted.
A spokesperson in Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger ‘s office said “We don’t have a statement on that.”
The first witness, Ga. Sen. Raphael Warnock, told the gathering that “Georgia has become ground zero for the sweeping voter suppression efforts we’ve seen gained momentum all across our country.”
Georgia became the first of 19 states to pass laws so far, he noted, “that restrict voter turnout in the wake of the November 2020 election.”
“My home state exemplifies the effectiveness of these suppressions, as well as the power and the opportunity of what Federal Voting rights legislation can accomplish,” Warnock said. “Sadly, what we’re seeing in Georgia is an attempt to deny certain people the ability to have their voices heard in our democracy.”
Even if voters in Georgia cleared these and other SB 202 hurdles, Warnock said. “This new law also allows partisan officials in the state legislature to control our state board of elections and take over a local election. It allows them to engage in these takeovers, even while votes are still being cast. This is a recipe not only for voter suppression but chaos in our democracy.”
“We’re in a 911-emergency for our democracy,” Warnock said.
The hearing comes as several bills — namely the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are stalled in Congress. The bills are seen as key remedies against a battery of what many call voter restrictive bills that have been introduced nationwide.
When asked whether Monday’s hearing would help advance the “People” and “John Lewis” legislation through Congress, Warnock told Atlanta Civic Circle, “we’ve got to keep it moving. We’ve got to get it done. There’s nothing more important right now.”
In a post-hearing interview, Klobuchar told Atlanta Civic Circle, the committee’s Atlanta visit “advances the ball.” She said it gave the committee a chance to hear details about voter suppression that they had not been privy to before.
“We heard [from] a lot of people. We don’t know [all of] the details. I mean, understandably, you try to simplify things with the story about the water which is outrageous, but there’s a lot more stuff going on here that is just as bad,” Klobuchar added.“The limit to the runoff. The no Sunday and Saturday voting during the runoff. It’s deliberately complicated to try to fool everyone and you’ve got to take the layers off of the foolery, to get to the truth and that’s what we’ve accomplished. All of my colleagues now know about this because honestly, I didn’t know all about it until I got here.”
Other committee members at Monday’s hearing included Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a key author of the pending For the People Act; California Sen. Alex Padilla and its newest member, Ga. Sen. Jon Ossoff.
Harrell, Butler and Segarra implored the committee to urge Congress to pass pending bills that would help override the limitations in laws in Georgia as well as elsewhere in the country.
“We desperately need your help,” said Harrell, who represents DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties. “Election bills [in Georgia] were rushed through and voted on along party lines. Minority party committee members often saw bills for the first time, minutes before they were voted on. Questions addressed to bill authors by minority members were frequently answered dishonestly, and disrespectfully.
“It was very apparent to me there was no required oath to tell the truth in the Georgia General Assembly,” she said. “In the nine years I served in the Georgia General Assembly, I have never seen such a blatant disregard for the legislative process, as I did with Senate Bill 202.”
Butler, a prominent voting rights activist, told the committee that “I took my position as a board member very seriously, and work to ensure the administration of elections of Morgan “The reconstitution of county boards of elections to ensure majority party control, and the takeover provisions under SB 202… raises the specter that the goal will be to nullify the lawful votes of Georgia voters.”
In a post-hearing interview, Butler told Atlanta Civic Center she believes “SB 202 will be used to take over the big counties and the smaller counties can be taken over with the local legislation which is the law that removed me from the board.”
Butler is executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda which was founded by the late Rev. Joseph Lowery.
Segarra, who served in the Air Force for 30 years and now lives in Warner Robbins, said he went to “extraordinary lengths” to cast his ballot.”
“I served my country,” he told the committee. “I’m here to respectfully ask for your help in protecting the freedom of all voters to vote.”
What do you think about SB202? Did you have any trouble voting in the last election cycle? Let us know in the comments, or write to Democracy Reporter Tammy Joyner.
NOTE: This story was updated to include Gov. Kemp’s response.
Photos by Kelly Jordan