Oversight Chairman Cites Dying Mom’s Plea in Bias Inquiries

  • Georgia, Texas, Kansas voting complaints focus of probes
  • Republicans say deference should be given to the states

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s razor-thin win in an election in which he was both candidate and chief supervisor is Exhibit A in House Democrats’ efforts to create momentum for reviving federal oversight of some states’ voting procedures.

“We have come to accept that a lot of votes will not be counted’’ so what “we want to do is shine a light on our voting system throughout the country and whether it reflects what Americans want,’’ said Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

Cummings’ committee is one of several in the House examining election procedures around the country to document patterns of discrimination. It has demanded information from Kemp and other Georgia officials as it seeks data about other alleged voter suppression in Texas and Kansas.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), head of the House oversight panel.

Republicans have showed little appetite for addressing the problems identified by voting rights advocates, particularly since the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So the efforts by Cummings and other Democrats are less about passing legislation than creating a record showing patterns of states erecting barriers to access to the polls through voter identification laws or purges of registration rolls, or drawing legislative-district boundaries to dilute the political power of minority voters.

To Cummings, the investigation is “very personal’’ because of the death-bed command of his mother, Ruth Cummings, the daughter of South Carolina sharecroppers.

“Her last words to me before she died, she didn’t say `I love you,’ she didn’t say `I am proud of you,’ she said: `Do not let them take our votes away,’” Cummings said. “That’s just how important it was to her.’’

Exact-Match Law

Kemp was Georgia’s chief election official until two days after thwarting Democrat Stacey Abrams’ quest to become the nation’s first African-American female governor. During the campaign he defied Democrats’ demands that he step down as secretary of state, resigning when the recount was in its second day.

His victory margin was slightly larger than the number of voter registration applications that county election officials had put on hold before the election, after the names failed an “exact match’’ identification check against other government records. Eighty percent of the more than 51,000 would-be voters whose registrations were put on hold were African-American, Asian-American or Latino, according to a 2018 lawsuit challenging the “exact match’’ law.

“Georgia was the most egregious’’ but “there were profound voting irregularities and interferences with the right to vote that took place in a bunch of states,’’ said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) who chairs the Oversight Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee. “We want to try to determine what the patterns of voter obstruction were in various states and figure out what are the most targeted forms of legislation we can develop to try to deal with it.’’

Until the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in 2013, part or all of 15 states with histories of restricting or barring minority access to the ballot dating back to the 1960s were subjected to close federal supervision. These states, including virtually the entire South, plus some local jurisdictions were required to obtain Justice Department “pre-clearance’’ to change election procedures, move polling places or redraw federal, state or local legislative districts.

“Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in a case that originated in Shelby County, Alabama, the jurisdiction that includes Birmingham, a center of violent resistance to racial integration in the 1960s.

The majority’s finding that “everything was fine in Shelby’’ is a challenge for Congress “to present some evidence that everything is not fine,” Cummings said. “As a matter of fact it’s worse.”

Democrats’ Field Trips

House Democratic leaders have said they plan a floor vote later this year to update the formula for determining which jurisdictions need federal supervision. But opposition by Senate Republicans means the measure is strictly a vehicle for delivering the Democrats’ political message on the issue.

Since February, lawmakers have traveled to Georgia, North Dakota and North Carolina for a series of field hearings by the Committee on House Administration’s Elections Subcommittee to examine election-law administration and voting rights.

North Carolina is facing court challenges to a voter identification law that civil rights groups contend is part of a minority-vote-suppression effort by the state’s Republican legislature. The law was passed late last year over the veto of the state’s Democratic governor. In 2016, a federal appeals court blocked implementation of a another voter ID after it found the measure was enacted to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Native American groups are challenging North Dakota’s voter identification law requiring people living on reservations to provide identification with a street address, even though their residences often don’t have one. The subcommittee held an April 25 hearing in Ohio, where civil rights groups unsuccessfully challenged the state’s purge of voters who hadn’t participated in recent elections from its registration rolls. It also plans one in Alabama, said Subcommittee Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio).

Cummings’ committee is also reviewing the decision to move the only polling place in Dodge City, Kansas, which serves 13,000 voters in the Hispanic-majority city, to a location a mile from town that’s not served by city buses. Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox cited plans for construction near the usual polling place last fall but the project didn’t begin until after the election. The American Civil Liberties Union dropped a lawsuit seeking more polling places after Cox announced she will open two new voting locations this year.

The Judiciary Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over voting rights, held a hearing on the history of Justice Department enforcement of the law.

Republicans have shown little interest in bringing back “pre-clearance’’ procedures. That’s a shift in the party’s position since 2006, when Republican lawmakers overwhelmingly supported reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. The Senate voted 98-0 to clear the legislation that had passed the House on a 390-33 roll call.

“Pre-clearance is something that was designed for a very specific point in time that the court rightfully recognized was past that time,’’ said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), the ranking member on oversight’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties panel. “At this point, we ought to give deference to states to administer their voting processes and systems as much as possible.”

Dead on Arrival

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). who voted to reauthorize the law 13 years ago, said he considers the court decision the last word. “The court decision was well founded so if they are trying to change that I’ll be a no’’ he said of House Democrats. Nor does he have plans to hold hearings on such a bill, Graham said.

Graham said his position has shifted on the issue because “African-American participation is way up in South Carolina’’ elections.

Republicans have also questioned the Oversight Committee’s jurisdiction to investigate Texas, Kansas and Georgia. Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Roy and two other committee Republicans signed an April 15 letter telling officials in the three states that that Cummings’ “partisan” investigation serves “no valid legislative purpose.’’

Tess Hammock, spokeswoman for Georgia’s acting secretary of state, said in an email that the state is “voluntarily cooperating’’ with Cummings’ investigation “because we are looking to set the record straight on these baseless allegations.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on April 11 said the Oversight Committee “appears to be inserting itself’’ into the state’s effort to purge non-citizens from the voter rolls. Paxton said the committee’s request would be treated as a request under the state’s public records law, which exempts disclosures of information related to litigation or pending criminal investigations.

In an April 29 letter to Paxton, Cummings and Raskin said congressional investigations are authorized by the U.S. Constitution and not limited by a state public-records law. Paxton failed to demonstrate that producing any documents “would impact any ongoing criminal matter.”

Plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging voter-roll purges and other registration rules argue that voters are penalized by error-riddled government databases and discrepancies created by clerical errors. Under Georgia’s “exact match’’ law, a transposed letter or dropped hyphen or middle initial could disqualify a voter, according to lawsuits by voter-rights groups challenging its enforcement.

In Texas, Acting Secretary of State David Whitley backtracked from a Jan. 25 advisory to local election officials that state officials had identified 95,000 registered voters who might not be U.S. citizens. After Whitley’s office quickly discovered the list had 25,000 voters in error, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery temporarily barred local officials from purging anyone, concluding “there is no widespread voter fraud.’’

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jrowley@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com