Georgia's new election law marks 1st battle in voting rights war
Voting rights is shaping up to be a central focus ahead of 2022.
The sweeping elections bill signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp Thursday marks the beginning of a nationwide Republican effort targeting voting and election law.
While Iowa's governor signed a bill earlier this month imposing new restrictions on voting, the elections overhaul Kemp signed into law Thursday evening is the first major, post-2020 election legislative action in a battleground state former President Donald Trump lost and continuously contested with baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud and election irregularities.
Republicans in Arizona, another new battleground state Trump lost with competitive elections next cycle, have also proposed restrictive voting legislation, but such bills are not just under consideration in states Trump lost.
In states with Republican governors that Trump won, like Texas and Florida, GOP legislators have also proposed legislation that would restrict voter access. In Florida, for example, one bill that has advanced through committees would eliminate the use of drop boxes entirely, which Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who -- like Kemp -- faces reelection in 2022, advocated for. Vote-by-mail was popular in Florida pre-pandemic, and for all statewide elections between 2014 and 2018, Republicans favored the option more than Democrats.
In Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, the top election official in the state, resisted pressure to overturn the presidential election in favor of Trump, but the new law now strips him of his chairmanship and voting power on the State Election Board. By a majority vote, the General Assembly will now appoint three of the five voting members of the board, including the chairperson, and by a majority vote, that board will have new power to suspend county election superintendents deemed unfit for the role and appoint temporary replacements.
Voting rights is shaping up to be a defining issue of the 2022 cycle.
"I think both sides -- Democrats and Republicans -- are going to point to aspects of this to mobilize their base," said University of Georgia Professor Charles Bullock, an expert in Southern politics.
Bullock told ABC News that Republicans will "continue their narrative that elections in Georgia can be easily stolen," but point to this bill as a firewall. But it's also a useful, "very effective message" for Democrats, he added, who can point to the bill and build on the narrative that shaped the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, "that Republicans are out to suppress the vote," but Democrats can stop them by voting.
In a statement Friday, President Joe Biden echoed voting rights advocates, calling the bill "Jim Crow in the 21st Century."
"This is Jim Crow in the 21st Century. It must end," he said of the bill. "We have a moral and Constitutional obligation to act. I once again urge Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to make it easier for all eligible Americans access the ballot box and prevent attacks on the sacred right to vote."
The fight over voting rights is just getting started.
The Washington-based attorney who led the charge to expand voting access during the pandemic and countered former Trump's post-election legal pursuits, Marc Elias, has filed a lawsuit against the new legislation in Georgia on behalf of the New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter and Rise. The filing came right after a Black Democratic state lawmaker was arrested for trying to witness Kemp's bill signing, which happened behind closed doors but in front of the press.
A Facebook video reviewed by ABC News shows Rep. Park Cannon knocking on the door where Kemp was signing the bill. After continuing to knock, she is eventually handcuffed by state troopers who tell her she's under arrest. Protesters who had joined her at the door erupted in anger and disbelief as she was practically dragged out of the State Capitol by the officers.
She faces two charges, obstruction of law enforcement and preventing or disrupting General Assembly sessions or other meetings of members, according to a statement from Georgia State Patrol obtained by ABC's Atlanta affiliate WSB.
"I’ve been released from jail. I am not the first Georgian to be arrested for fighting voter suppression. I’d love to say I’m the last, but we know that isn’t true," Cannon tweeted. She said the "closed-door signing" of the bill was a "product of a white supremacist system."
Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project accused Kemp of cowardice for signing the bill not just behind closed doors but just an hour after it was passed. Bills often go unsigned until the legislative sessions ends, which isn't until March 31.
Asked what she made of the photo of Kemp signing the bill told her, Ufot said, "Georgia's pale, stale, male minority has an outsized influence on our politics and they feel their grip slipping."
Rev. Raphael Warnock, Georgia's first Black senator who faces reelection in 2022, was with Cannon, one of his parishioners, after she was released from jail.
"I got news for the state of Georgia for those who are trying to take the people's voices. We're going to keep on -- in various ways, we're going to keep on knocking on that door. Because that wasn't just Representative Cannon knocking on the door," Warnock told reporters Friday.
In his bill signing remarks, Kemp said the bill will make it "easy to vote and hard to cheat," echoing Republicans in the state legislature. He also took a shot at its critics.
"Georgians will no doubt be soon overwhelmed with fancy TV ads, mailers and radio spots attacking this common-sense election reform measure. In fact, left-wing groups funded by out-of-state billionaires are already doing that now. They're using outrageous, false rhetoric to scare you and put millions of dollars in their own pocket," Kemp said. "According to them, if you support voter ID for absentee ballots, you're a racist. According to them, if you believe in protecting the security and sanctity of the ballot box, you're a 'Jim Crow in a suit and tie.'"
In Georgia, there "is a long history of aggressively and intentionally suppressing Black votes that needs to be addressed," said Ufot, but she added that, "an attack on our democracy and an attack on the right to vote is an attack on us all."
She told ABC News that the GOP is threatened by the changing demographics and electorate, in Georgia and across the country.
"The current version of the Republican Party and people who champion their policies see this rise in a multiracial, multiethnic progressive majority as a threat to their future prospects ... America's Browning. We're moving towards a multiracial, multiethnic majority, and Georgia is just the tip of the spear," she said. "They think that they can no longer win on their ideas."
ABC News' Lauren Lantry, Ben Siu and Chad Murray contributed to this report.