Georgia's new Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in his first Senate floor speech last week wasted little time with hellos or introductions. Instead he got right to the point: Voting is a sacred right, one that is key to all other rights and one that should not be obstructed.
"We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights and voter access unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era," Warnock said Wednesday. "One person, one vote is being threatened right now. Politicians in my home state and all across America, in their craven lust for power, have launched a full-fledged assault on voting rights" and on "democracy itself.
"I stand before you saying that this issue — access to voting and preempting politicians' efforts to restrict voting — is so fundamental to our democracy that it is too important to be held hostage by a Senate rule, especially one historically used to restrict the expansion of basic rights," he said. "It is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights [with a filibuster] in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in our society."
With that, Georgia's first Black U.S. senator not so gently threw down the gauntlet: The filibuster should not get in the way of passing a federal overhaul of elections, campaign finance and redistricting laws.
The overhaul bill Sen. Warnock was talking about is known as the "For the People Act." It was easily approved in House earlier this month, but it seems unlikely to garner the necessary support of at least 10 GOP senators to send it to the Senate floor for a full vote. Warnock, who also is the senior pastor of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is the Senate's lead sponsor of the bill.
Democrats cast the legislation as a way to render most of the state GOP moves moot by providing a set of national standards. Republican leaders insist their state bills, which popped up after former President Donald Trump's false assertions that the 2020 elections were "rigged," are needed to prevent voter fraud and reassure voters that U.S. elections are legitimate.
Just in the months since Biden handily won the 2020 election, GOP-led states have filed more than 100 restrictive bills — "voter suppression bills" as Warnock termed them. Among other things, they seek to end to no-excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration, limit early voting on weekends and require more identification to vote.
The "For the People" bill would make automatic voter registration the norm nationwide, effectively forbid racial and partisan gerrymandering of district boundaries, establish national baselines for absentee voting, make it harder for states to remove irregular voters from the rolls and expand public financing of elections to lessen the influence of wealthy big-donor and PAC money.
Separately, Democrats in Congress want to restore key sections of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states and local jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to receive federal approval for their local voting procedures. The Supreme Court gutted those provisions in 2013.
In his speech, Warnock reminded his colleagues that he and the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis on several occasions had left their Sunday services to board buses together as part of their Souls to the Polls program, encouraging the Ebenezer Church family and communities of faith to participate in the democratic process.
"Now just a few months after Congressman Lewis' death, there are those in the Georgia legislature, some who even dare to praise his name, that are now trying to get rid of Sunday Souls to the Polls, making it a crime for people who pray together to get on a bus together in order to vote together. I think that's wrong.
"Matter of fact, I think that a vote is a kind of prayer for the kind of world we desire for ourselves and for our children. To be sure, we have seen these kind of voter suppression tactics before. They are part of a long and shameful history in Georgia and throughout our nation. But refusing to be denied, Georgia citizens and citizens across our country brave the heat and the cold and the rain, some standing in line for five hours, six hours, 10 hours just to exercise their constitutional right to vote."
"Ours is a land where possibility is born of democracy," Warnock said. "A vote, a voice, a chance to help determine the direction of the country and one's own destiny within it. That's why this past November and January my mom and other citizens of Georgia grabbed hold of that possibility and turned out in record numbers. Five million in November and 4.1 million in January...
"And how do some politicians respond?
"Well, they're trying to make it a crime to give people water and a snack as they wait in lines that are obviously being made longer by their draconian actions... Make no mistake, this is democracy in reverse...
"Surely, there ought to be at least 60 in this chamber who believe, as I do, that the four most powerful words uttered in a democracy are 'the people have spoken.' Therefore, we must ensure that all the people can speak. But if not, we must still pass voting rights."
Rev. Warnock received thunderous applause.