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Sen. Ossoff Highlights Need for Voting Rights Protections at Key Senate Hearing

Sen. Ossoff pointed to the closure of at least 214 polling places in Georgia in recent years

Washington, D.C. –– Today in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff highlighted the urgent need to pass landmark voting rights protections that would prevent states like Georgia from undermining voting rights.

In a hearing on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, Sen. Ossoff raised concerns about voter suppression tactics used in Georgia in recent years, including polling place closures, inequitable redistricting practices, and barriers to the ballot box for minority communities.

“After the Shelby County decision gutted Section Five [of the Voting Rights Act], preclearance was no longer a barrier and the state and jurisdictions within it were free to enact [restrictive voting] changes without Federal oversight, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen,” Sen. Ossoff said in the hearing. “And I want to highlight in particular the closure of polling places in Georgia. At least 214 polling places in Georgia have been closed since the Shelby County v. Holder decision was made. And we’ve seen that the impact of these closures has been most profoundly felt by minority voters and in minority communities.”

Professor Franita Tolson, Vice Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs and Professor of Law at the USC Gould School of Law, noted that since 2013, jurisdictions formerly covered by Section Five — in places like Georgia — have closed on average 20% more polling places than jurisdictions in the rest of the country.

Sen. Ossoff is continuing to push for passage of substantive Federal voting rights protections in the U.S. Senate.

Last week, Sen. Ossoff announced that several of his key voting rights bills were included in major new voting rights legislation introduced in the Senate, including his landmark Right to Vote Act and his Voters’ Access to Water Act.

Click here to watch Sen. Ossoff’s line of questioning.

Please find a transcript of the exchange below:

SEN. OSSOFF: “Thank you for the recognition and thanks to our panel for joining us today. Professor Tolson, until 2013, until the Shelby County v. Holder decision, Georgia and jurisdictions within Georgia had to pre-approve changes to voting laws with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice in accordance with Section Five of the VRA. After the Shelby County decision gutted Section Five, preclearance was no longer a barrier and the state and jurisdictions within it were free to enact changes without Federal oversight, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen. And I want to highlight in particular the closure of polling places in Georgia. At least 214 polling places in Georgia have been closed since the Shelby County v. Holder decision was made. And we’ve seen that the impact of these closures has been most profoundly felt by minority voters and in minority communities. So, Professor Tolson, my question for you –– what threat do polling place closures and relocations pose to voting access and why therefore is known practices coverage, which we’re discussing today in this hearing, a necessary tool to mitigate that threat and protect ballot access?”

PROFESSOR FRANITA TOLSON: “Thank you, Senator. It’s incredibly important, in part because, in Georgia in particular, you saw the strategic closure of polling places in minority areas, and this led to nine, 10, 11 hour waits in some parts of Fulton County in particular, but statewide, you definitely have problems with voters having to wait in line for a long time. I think there’s this perception that the pandemic caused a lot of this, right? But you had increased rates of absentee voting, you still have voters waiting in line to vote in person for a really long time. And this is in part a response to Shelby County. Since 2013, jurisdictions formerly covered by Section Five have closed on average 20% more polling places than jurisdictions in the rest of the country. So the problem that we saw in Georgia is something that is very widespread and practice-based preclearance will help mitigate some of that.”

SEN. OSSOFF: “Thank you, Professor Tolson. And some opponents of preclearance requirements have said it’s too hard for jurisdictions to prove to the Justice Department that changes would not harm ballot access for minority voters. Is that true? Is it reasonable to expect that a jurisdiction understands the impact of changes to voting access on minority voters before making that change? And is it reasonable to presume good intent on the part of those same actors?”

PROFESSOR FRANITA TOLSON: “Yes, Senator, I would think that jurisdictions would perform this sort of cost-benefit analysis prior to determining whether or not to close a polling place. If they have done so, then it shouldn’t be administratively difficult for them to prove that they are –– that they need to close a polling place. I would also point out that under the prior coverage formula, hundreds of jurisdictions comply with the Voting Rights Act administratively, with no problem. We tend to focus on the bad actors and the fact that they litigate changes for years and years and years. But in reality, this is not a huge administrative lift for most jurisdictions who are acting in good faith.”

SEN. OSSOFF: “Thank you, Professor Tolson. Redistricting is one of the practices that Congress is considering including in a covered practices provision of the John Lewis legislation. What is the best evidence that redistricting poses a particular threat to racial and language minority voters?”

PROFESSOR FRANITA TOLSON: “Is that also for me?”

SEN. OSSOFF: “Yes, ma’am.”

PROFESSOR FRANITA TOLSON: “Okay, great. So redistricting, especially now, as we are at the beginning of our, the redistricting that occurs at the beginning of the decade, minority communities are in this moment, in very weak positions, because many states have passed restrictive voting laws. And in those states, you’ll see efforts to try to gerrymander racial minorities into districts, which is something that was extensively litigated over the last decade. So cases came out of North Carolina, out of Alabama, out of Texas, where state legislatures tried to pack minority voters into districts claiming that the Voting Rights Act required them to do so, an argument that the Supreme Court ultimately rejected. And so as we enter into this next round of redistricting, we will see more efforts to try to suppress the political power of minority communities by packing them into districts and also cracking them across districts, which is why practice-based preclearance is so important.”

SEN. OSSOFF: “Thank you, Professor Tolson. Madam Chair, my final question for Mr. Yang. Mr. Yang, over the past 20 years, the number of Georgians who identify as Asian American has more than doubled, and nationwide Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic segment of eligible voters. Why, in your view, is passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act critical to protecting voting rights and ballot access for immigrant communities and minority communities like the Asian American community? And why in your view is vital to require pre-approval before states can enact changes like redistricting or closing polling places? Please. 

JOHN YANG: “Thank you for that question. Certainly because Asian Americans are so rapidly growing in the United States in many places that people don’t expect, such as Georgia, it’s important to have the modernized Voting Rights Act be passed to protect the rights of Asian Americans, really to make sure that they have –– they are able to exercise their voice in democracy. Specifically with respect to the practice-based preclearance, the key thing to remember here is that Asian Americans are appearing in places that traditionally have not had minorities, whether it’s in Nevada, whether it’s in Arkansas, whether it is in other more remote or rural places. And if we are only looking at historical geographies, then we may miss the growth of Asian Americans and other communities of color in those geographies. That’s why it’s also necessary to include practice-based preclearance as a complement to the coverage formula under Section Five.”

SEN. OSSOFF: “Thank you, Mr. Yang, and thank you, Madam Chair, I yield.”

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