Stacey Abrams appearance at voting rights hearing has political overtones, GOP says

Stacey Abrams had the spotlight at a special House subcommittee hearing on possible voter abuse. Republicans claimed her well-publicized appearance was a ploy to boost her political prospects.

Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race last year, told a congressional subcommittee examining ways to boost voting rights that a toxic combination of “incompetence and malfeasance” led to a systemic voter suppression effort in Georgia.

“Incompetence and malfeasance operates in tandem and the sheer complexity of the state’s voting apparatus smooths voter suppression into a nearly seamless system that targets voter registration, ballot access and ballot counting,” Abrams told the House Administration’s subcommittee on elections. “These hurdles have had their desired effect.”

Republicans lambasted Tuesday’s hearings, calling it a congressionally-funded ad for a potential Abrams 2020 Senate run against incumbent Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia.

“This hearing as well as her State of the Union address (response) are part and parcel of a Democratic desire to see that race,” said John Watson, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. “This is the next stage of the promotion of Stacey Abrams on the taxpayer’s dime. I believe these are in-kind contributions for her campaign for the United States Senate.”

No House Republicans attended Tuesday’s hearing. Fudge said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Illinois, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, had planned to attend but canceled.

Courtney Parella, a spokeswoman for House Administration Committee Republicans, said Davis wasn’t at the hearing because he was busy preparing to help write — and try to amend — the broad Democratic voting rights and elections bill, dubbed H.R.1, when the House returns next week.

“Ranking member Rodney Davis is very interested in considering reforms to voting rights and election administration,” Parella said, adding that Davis plans to attend upcoming subcommittee field hearings.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the subcommittee’s chair, dismissed the local Republican charges that her panel was providing Abrams a platform for a political run. Abrams has vowed to run for office again but hasn’t said which one.

“They can think what they want to think, they can call it what they please,” Fudge said. “We started this in Texas. Stacey Abrams is not from Texas. We’re going to North Carolina. Stacey Abrams is not from North Carolina. What it is is a hearing on how we enfranchise all voters in the United States.”

Some House Democrats at the hearing voiced strong support for Abrams. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, called her “Senator Abrams” when he began questioning her. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, praised Abrams’ gubernatorial run, adding “All I can say is ‘Black Girl Magic.’”

Congressional Democrats showed financial support for Abrams in her unsuccessful bid to become the nation’s first African American female governor last year. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Johnson, Sewell, and subcommittee Chair Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, contributed a total of more than $34,000 to Abrams’ campaign either from their personal accounts or through their campaign committees.

The hearing is the first full session in a series that will stretch across the country as lawmakers seek to build a case for restoring fractured parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The subcommittee first held a listening session in Brownsville, Texas, earlier this month. It will hold hearings in North Carolina, North Dakota, Florida, Ohio, Alabama, and Washington, D.C.

Georgia became the epicenter of the skirmish between Democrats, who accused Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp of engaging in voter suppression as secretary of state, and Republicans who said culling the rolls was necessary to guard against voter fraud.

Abrams lost to Kemp by 55,000 votes. She has refused to say that Kemp was legitimately elected.

“While I acknowledge the results of the 2018 election in Georgia — I did not and we cannot accept efforts to undermine our right to vote,” Abrams said in her Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union message earlier this month.

Watson said Abrams “still can’t come to grips that she lost an election that was open, fair, transparent and record-breaking.”

In a June 2013 decision, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required some or all of 15 states and jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination at the polls to get federal approval, pre-clearance, before changing their voting rules.

Texas, Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia were subject to pre-clearance along with local jurisdictions in California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.

The court urged Congress to revisit the law. But a Republican-controlled House and Senate took no action to do so, despite the introduction of several bipartisan bills to remedy the pre-clearance issue.

Restoring the provision is a top agenda item of House Democrats’ larger bill that would also restrict the purging of voter roles, require presidents and vice presidents to release their tax returns, have independent redistricting commissions draw election district boundaries, and make Election Day a federal holiday.

Led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, Republicans have branded the Democratic effort as a “power grab.” Watson said Georgia doesn’t need to be under pre-clearance again.

“Georgia 2019 doesn’t need pre-clearance from the Justice Department,” he said. “This is a state of 10.3 million people who can appropriately, judiciously and transparently run our elections.”

William Douglas covers Congress and politics regionally for McClatchy. A University of South Carolina alum, he’s also covered the White House and State Department in his stint in Washington. He’s co-host of McClatchy’s Majority Minority podcast.