Georgia State Senator Sally Harrell (D) remembers arriving at the parking garage near the legislative office building early, before the sun rose. Sitting in meetings through dinner, her stomach rumbling. Feverishly texting the chair of the Senate Ethics Committee, begging him to get her a copy of an election-related bill early enough so she could read it before voting on it — sometimes, she said, he did, and sometimes he didn’t.
Frustrations like those peppered the few months when she and her Democratic colleagues watched as state Republicans raced to concoct restrictive voting legislation in response to the critical wins of President Joe Biden and Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA) in the state.
They, like Republicans in state legislatures across the country, pushed the legislation under the guise of election security, despite the absence of widespread voting fraud. Georgia Republicans enjoy a trifecta: majorities in both statehouse chambers and the governor’s mansion.
“It was very frustrating to get up every morning and fight knowing that I couldn’t really affect the outcome,” Harrell told TPM. “We simply didn’t have enough votes.”
Harrell shared her testimony in person at a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Rules Committee in Atlanta this week, pulling back the curtain on the undemocratic processes that left the state with a profoundly undemocratic law. Her Senate district, the 40th, dips into major Democratic strongholds like Fulton and Gwinnett counties.
She spoke out at the Senate field hearing as a last resort. It was a plea born from a lack of options, for federal Democrats to step up and pass voting safeguards like the For the People Act.
Texas Democrats are currently in D.C., pressing a similar case. The Texas representatives fled the state to deny the state House chamber a quorum, a tactic to keep the majority Republicans from muscling through a restrictive voting law of their own. They’re using their time away from home to lobby U.S. Democrats to pass voting rights legislation; currently, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are blocking those bills by upholding the filibuster, which gives Republicans a veto over almost all legislation.
But Georgia Democrats, Harrell pointed out, lack even the scant options Texas Democrats are currently taking advantage of.
“We have gained the ability to block a supermajority, to block things like amendments to the state constitution, but we don’t have the numbers to block a quorum,” she said.
That was just one of many reasons Harrell outlined for why her Democratic colleagues in the state Senate felt so powerless against the barrage of restrictive voting bills.
Georgia, like many states, uses the “citizen-legislator” model, meaning a very quick legislative session to begin with — all the easier to ram through controversial legislation under the radar. It also means part-time legislators without access to an extensive staff, making it harder, Harrell said, to have the resources to fight the bills single-handedly.
Harrell chose to serve on the Senate Ethics Committee because it receives all voting-related bills, an issue important to her constituency. At the beginning of term, she said she was taken aback when the majority scheduled her committee meetings: 7:30 a.m. on one day of the week, 5 p.m. on another. She remembers walking into committee meetings where she and her Democratic colleagues would receive copies of bill substitutions, having to hastily scan them in the minutes before a vote.
And in passing the omnibus voting law — the package that lets state-level officials take over county election boards, requires ID for absentee ballots and limits drop box placement, among other things — that Governor Brian Kemp (R) signed into law in March, state Republicans managed to sneakily bypass her committee.
“The majority party on the House side took a Senate bill that we had dealt with in committee that was two pages long about who can send out absentee ballot applications and put a brand new bill on that bill number that contained a hodgepodge of different legislation,” Harrell said.
The substitution, introduced by state Rep. Barry Fleming (R), added 50 more sections and 91 pages to the bill — an hour before the committee was set to debate the two-page bill.
The switcheroo meant that the bill didn’t have to pass through the Senate Ethics Committee again, Harrell said, even though its contents had changed radically. The only bite at the apple the Senate had was to vote up or down the House’s dramatic changes to the bill, which, she added, provided very little opportunity to debate the legislation.
“It’s not unheard of, but for something this huge and something that affects the public so much, it seems so wrong,” she said.
At the same time, Harrell remembers the public being boxed out of the debate over a slew of different restrictive voting bills due to both COVID-19 measures and what she describes as a purposeful lack of information.
“The public couldn’t be there because of the virus, and I also heard a lot of complaints from the public that communication coming from the committee was very confusing about whether people could speak to the bill, when they were taking testimony and when they weren’t,” she said.
She said that left the burden on her to make all the points and ask all the questions that an expert ordinarily would have, even while she was having difficulty getting her hands on the basic information herself.
“Had there not been a virus, the halls would have been stuffed full of people,” she said. “Instead, the Capitol was eerily silent.”
Georgia Republicans are not the only ones using structural advantages from their majority to facilitate the voting restriction push. In Michigan, for example, state Republicans are actually gaming out a way to circumvent the Democratic governor, whose veto would ordinarily block the bills. There, Democrats have some hope of salvation — if they collect enough signatures, they can force a referendum, putting the restrictive bills on hold until voters can weigh in during an election.
In Georgia, Democrats have no such legislative tools and no such safety net. All they can do now is send up the alarm and hope Democrats like Manchin and Sinema are swayed to action.
“I want the Senate to pass the For the People Act to set those national standards,” Harrell said. “We need help.”