A new 'Jim Crow era': Biden, civil rights leaders slam Georgia election reform

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WASHINGTON – Voting rights groups vowed Friday to fight against a new election law in Georgia they said would erect a wall of barriers for voters of color not seen since the Jim Crow era. They also blasted the arrest of a Georgia state representative, a Black woman, who attempted to watch the signing of the state’s new election law.

“We’re back at Jim Crow era,’’ said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a nonpartisan civic engagement group based in Georgia. “Our fight to support and protect democracy is not over.''

Georgia officials approved Thursday a sweeping voting rights measure that would overhaul the state’s election rules. Hours later, Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican and the state’s former secretary of state, signed it into law, while some Democrats and voting rights activists protested at the state Capitol.

“Georgia will take another step toward ensuring our elections are secure accessible and fair,’’ Kemp said soon after signing the bill into law.

Georgia is one of many GOP-led states considering more restrictive voting laws.

Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon, a Democrat and opponent of the law, was arrested by Capitol police Thursday after knocking on the door of the governor’s office.

Gerald Griggs, an attorney for Cannon, called the arrest an “overreach’’ by law enforcement officers. Griggs said Cannon was trying to witness Kemp signing the bill. He said other state lawmakers were allowed in the room.

In videos posted on social media, Cannon is seen knocking on a door. Police then handcuff her and take her out of the Capitol as bystanders watch and ask questions about why she is being arrested.

Cannon was charged with two felony counts of obstruction of law enforcement, punishable by one to five years in prison, and with disrupting a session of the General Assembly.

Griggs said he’s working to get the charges dismissed.

“I don’t see an obstruction,’’ he said. “I see law enforcement dragging a state representative through the people’s house and then arresting her.”

Cannon was held in jail Thursday night for nearly six hours, Griggs said.

“She’s shaken, but she’s resolved to fight for justice and accountability for her constituents and to make sure we protect voting rights,” he said.

More: 'It's sick': Biden slams Republican efforts in state legislatures to limit voting rights

Democratic state Rep. Park Cannon was arrested after knocking on the door of Governor Brian Kemp's office as he signed the elections legislation.
Democratic state Rep. Park Cannon was arrested after knocking on the door of Governor Brian Kemp's office as he signed the elections legislation.

President Joe Biden criticized efforts in Republican-led state legislatures, including Georgia's, to pass election bills making access to the ballot box more difficult. Biden and other Democrats said Congress must pass voting rights measures that would undo some of the states' more restrictive changes.

“Instead of celebrating the rights of all Georgians to vote or winning campaigns on the merits of their ideas, Republicans in the state instead rushed through an un-American law to deny people the right to vote,’’ 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.''

The Georgia law, would among other things, require a photo ID to vote absentee by mail, cut the period to request an absentee ballot and place limits on ballot drop boxes. It would also give more control over election officials to the state Legislature.

It would also make it illegal to hand out water to voters on line. In recent elections, Georgia voters, particularly those in Black neighborhoods, have waited many hours in line to vote.

Biden and other Democrats, along with voting rights groups, are pushing for passage of voting rights bills H.R.1 and S1 in Congress that aim to expand access to the polls. The House passed the “For the People Act’’ earlier this month. The Senate held a hearing on the measure last Wednesday. It faces more hurdles in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority.

More than 253 bills in 43 states have been introduced that would restrict access to voting, including reducing early voting hours, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law in New York City.

Voting rights activists describe Republican efforts to make voting more difficult as an attempt to turn away voters, particularly people of color. Georgia has long come under fire from activists for such practices.

Many states adopted changes last year to accommodate voters during the COVID-19 pandemic, including providing drop-off boxes for ballots. Democrats hoped to make many of the changes permanent.

National civil rights groups, including the National Urban League, the National Action Network and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said Georgia's new election reform is in response to the record turnout of Black voters in key races.

“We must call this bill what it is: pure voter suppression...,'' the groups said in a statement. "The coordinated effort to force this restrictive bill onto the people of Georgia is a devastating reminder that we have not yet moved beyond the dark history of voter suppression in this country. "

Griggs said there has been a lack of transparency around the voting rights measures since they were first introduced by Georgia Republican lawmakers this session. He said civil rights activists rallied outside for 22 days calling for proof of voter fraud and voter integrity, which supporters of the measure argued they were fending off.

Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has defended the integrity of the state’s election system. On Friday, Raffensperger defended the state's new election law saying it adds security measures and expands access to voting.

“The cries of ‘voter suppression from those on the left ring hollow,” he said in a statement.

Former President Donald Trump, who lost the state to Biden last year, has alleged voter fraud. Raffensperger and federal officials have said there is no evidence to support that. Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff went on to win Senate elections earlier this year.

“Now we’re trying to change the rules,’’ said Griggs.

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Civil rights groups file lawsuits

Nonpartisan groups Black Voters Matter Fund, the New Georgia Project and Rise Inc., filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court challenging the new law and saying it would have “burdensome and discriminatory” effect on voting.

The suit charges lawmakers approved legislation ‘‘that is clearly intended to and will have the effect of making it harder for lawful Georgia voters to participate in the State’s elections. And it will impose these unjustifiable burdens disproportionately on the State’s minority, young, poor, and disabled citizens.’’

The groups and others launched aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts and are credited with helping spur a record number of voters to cast ballots last year in critical states like Georgia and Pennsylvania.

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Washington.

Kemp slammed Biden and others Friday for criticizing the new law, saying the president and the national media are trying to destroy the "sanctity and security of the ballot box."

"There is nothing 'Jim Crow' about requiring a photo or state-issued ID to vote by absentee ballot - every Georgia voter must already do so when voting in person,'' he said in a statement.

More: Black women's groups exercising new political power going into 2020 presidential campaign

'We're fighting for voting rights in 2021'

But Griggs, also a civil rights activist, said the changes are troubling.

“It’s a shame that in the birthplace of Dr. King, the birthplace of civil rights, the home of John Lewis we’re fighting for voting rights in 2021,’’ he said, noting that Lewis, the late civil rights icon from Georgia, was laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

“For this governor to sign a bill behind locked doors and not allow the African American members of the Georgia House of Representatives, or the Asian American or the Latino members to witness this, speaks volumes of where Georgia is,” Griggs said.

Griggs said much like in the 1950s and 1960s, there needs to be federal intervention, such as when Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act to protect the right to vote.

Brown of Black Voters Matter said while what is happening in Georgia is egregious, it’s also happening in other states across the country and must be addressed. Brown said Biden wouldn't have won and Democrats would not have the advantage in the U.S. Senate had it not been for Black voters.

“For us to be out here to defend our vote by ourselves, it’s problematic,” Brown said at a panel of the Black Women's Roundtable virtual conference Friday. “We have to continue to put pressure and fight, but this is a national larger issue that is embedded in the history of this country that we have to fight and beat back.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Follow Deborah Berry on Twitter: @dberrygannett

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia voting bill 2021: Biden, civil rights leaders slam new leaw