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As Biden takes the bully pulpit in Georgia, a new wave of voting laws appears under the Golden Dome

By Tom Baxter

Waxing a little too metaphorical, White House senior advisor Cedric Richmond said that by giving his big speech on voting rights in Georgia, President Joe Biden was “going right to the belly of the beast.”

Richmond was referring to the “voter suppression, voter subversion and obstruction” Democrats claim Republicans have committed in Georgia, but he might just as well have referred to Georgia as the belly of Democratic discontent with the administration’s progress on voting issues.

Biden’s speech Tuesday was the latest of a series, including his speech in December outlining the efforts to control the Omicron variant and his speech on the anniversary of the Capitol riot, which were intended to be an inflection point for the beleaguered administration.

The General Assembly, meanwhile, is back in town and poised to give Democrats more reason to spotlight Georgia as ground zero in the battle over ballots, with an array of election-year legislation.

Sen. Burt Jones wants to ditch the state’s new voting machines and go to paper ballots. His rival in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, Sen. Butch Miller, wants to eliminate drop boxes, already heavily restricted in last year’s voting bill, altogether. Some of these proposals are likely to face choppy waters, but House Speaker David Ralston has indicated his support for the bill which would allow the GBI, rather than the Secretary of State’s office, to investigate election cases.

“My goal is to never have a repeat of an election where 13 months after it’s over, you still have this degree of questioning the validity of an election, rightly or wrongly,” Ralston said last week.

Therein lies a troubling problem. There’s never going to be enough legislation to satisfy this particular beast. All the various strands of distrust in the voting system have intertwined in a way that a portion of the electorate is unlikely to trust the results, no matter which side wins or what rules have been enacted to police the vote.

A willful refusal to count operates at several levels of this widening chasm. The three-fifths clause of the U.S. Constitution is long gone, but a whisper of it remains in the way some conservative white voters perceive election results so that hours-long lines of African-Americans are reduced to a fraction — three-fifths, say — of their actual size. This phenomenon significantly predates Donald Trump, but he has made use of it in advancing his interests.

Another kind of willful refusal to count figures in the way Democrats have responded to the state-based campaigns to change voting laws. In a fashion similar to the way they approached their infrastructure package, they have advanced two flagship bills.

The For the People Act is the rough equivalent of the Build Back Better Act, in that both could be criticized or praised as a wishlist of progressive ideas, like eliminating partisan gerrymandering and automatically registering every citizen. A stripped-down version of this, the Freedom to Vote Act, is also in circulation.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which, not insignificantly, is the infrastructure bill that has passed and been signed into law. Like its equivalent, the John Lewis Act attends to a shorter list of immediate structural problems, including the restoration of portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Democrats’ experience with the infrastructure bills should have demonstrated the difficulty of passing one big bill, much less two, with their narrow majority in the Senate and House. Putting a priority on the John Lewis Act looks like the Democrats’ best chance to get a bill Biden can sign in time to have a real effect.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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