Arrest of Georgia Lawmaker Sharpens Debate on Voting Bills

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The arrest of a Black Georgia state lawmaker who was seeking entry to Governor Brian Kemp’s closed-door signing of a sweeping election law is placing sharper scrutiny on Republican-led statehouses’ pursuit of voting restrictions.

State Representative Park Cannon, a Democrat, was released from jail early Friday after she was handcuffed and arrested by two White Georgia State Patrol officers as supporters demanded to know what law she violated.

She had knocked on Kemp’s office door in the statehouse where he was signing a law that changes voting access rules in Georgia. Often a public ceremony for popular bills, the bill-signing took place behind closed doors with no media presence.

Arrest of Georgia Lawmaker Sharpens Debate on Voting Bills

The incident prompted a range of angry protests, including from President Joe Biden and Georgia’s newly elected Democratic senators, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

“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,” Biden said in a statement on Friday. “This is Jim Crow in the 21st century. It must end.

He urged Congress to pass two Democratic-led voting rights laws, and later said the Justice Department is considering what it may be able to do about the law.

“We’re working on that right now,” he said as he arrived in Wilmington, Delaware for the weekend. “We don’t know.”

After Cannon was released from jail, she tweeted, “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.”

She blasted the bill signed by Kemp as a hateful measure containing restrictions to “many methods of voting” that “serve no purpose other than to keep voters from exercising their constitutional right to vote.”

Democrats and voting rights groups have criticized what they call a voter-suppression bill. Republicans argue its aim is to improve election integrity in the wake of what they say was voter fraud during the 2020 election -- a baseless claim advanced by President Donald Trump after his re-election defeat.

He has particularly targeted Georgia, which Biden won in November.

Warnock, at a news conference in Marietta on Friday, said that Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger have said there was no consequential fraud in the Georgia elections system, and have undergone a “change in tune.”

“You’re going to make public policy based on a lie? Because it didn’t turn out the way some people wanted?” he said, calling the bill “democracy in reverse.”

Biden is the first Democrat to carry Georgia since former President Bill Clinton’s first election in 1992. Warnock is the state’s first Black U.S. senator, defeating Republican Kelly Loeffler in a January runoff. His victory as well as Ossoff’s over David Perdue gave Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.

The nearly 100-page bill Kemp signed is a massive rewrite of Georgia’s election law, imposing new voter identification requirements, allowing state officials to take over local elections boards, limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, shortening the absentee voting window, and making it illegal to approach voters in line to give them food and water. It passed on party-line votes in both chambers.

Kemp tweeted a photo of himself singing the bill inside his office, proclaiming, “I was proud to sign S.B. 202 to ensure elections in Georgia are secure, fair, and accessible. I appreciate the hard work of members of the General Assembly to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement that the party would defend the law, which she said expands voting opportunities and includes “reforms that increase transparency and will improve the voting experience for all Georgia voters.”

The Georgia flap comes amid controversies over voting restrictions or expansions being proposed in state legislatures. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, which is tracking such efforts, reports that as of Feb. 19, state lawmakers are considering 253 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states, and 704 bills with provisions that expand voting access in a different set of 43 states.

The Democratic majority in the U.S. House earlier this month passed an election law package that, among other things, would expand online and automatic voter registration and require advocacy groups to disclose donors. Republicans are united in opposition to the legislation. While Democrats say it is their top priority, it faces tough-going in the evenly divided Senate.

Warnock visited Cannon at the Fulton County jail late Thursday.

“Today is a very sad day for the state of Georgia,” Warnock told reporters, according to video posted by WGCL-TV, an Atlanta-based CBS affiliate. “What we have witnessed today is a desperate attempt to lock out and squeeze the people out of their own democracy.”

Cannon said Warnock, who leads the same Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, is her pastor.

“All of us owe her a debt of gratitude in a real sense for standing up,” Warnock said of Cannon.

Ossoff tweeted: “I stand with Georgia State Rep. Park Cannon (@Cannonfor58), who was arrested and CHARGED WITH A FELONY for ... for what? For *knocking on Gov. Kemp’s office door* as she tried to observe the cowardly closed-door signing ceremony for the voter suppression law.”

At least one federal lawsuit already has been filed against the law by a group of non-profit civic organizations. They are challenging the new ID requirements, restrictions on ballot-drop boxes and time limits on out-of-precinct voting provisions in the law.

The groups -- the New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter Fund, and Rise -- are represented by leading Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, who successfully filed dozens of suits last year to expand access to voting in swing states during the pandemic and, after the election, helped defend the result from Republican challenges.

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