Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock – a senior pastor at Georgia’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr preached up until his death – issued a pointed rebuke at his Senate colleagues who have invoked the words of the late civil rights leader while obstructing the passage of a bill to protect and expand voting rights.
“You cannot honour Martin Luther King and work to dismantle his legacy at the same time,” he said.
He continued: “I will not sit quietly while some make Dr King the victim of identity theft … You do not get to offer praises in memory of Dr King and then marshal the same kinds of states rights arguments that were used against Dr King and against the civil rights movement.”
In a stirring speech to close out more than 10 hours of debate on 19 January, three days after the nation recognised the federal holiday honouring Dr King on his birthday, Senator Warnock urged senators to reflect on their place in history, facing a doomed vote on legislation supporting voting rights against a tidal wave of attempts to undermine it.
“We have been summoned here by history,” he said. “This is not just another routine day in the Senate. This is a moral moment.”
The senator – who was elected with fellow Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff in a stunning run-off election that shifted the balance of power in Congress – traced his grandmother’s journey from picking cotton as a teenager to casting a vote for her grandson, in contrast with stories from his constituents who stood in line for hours to cast a ballot.
“Only in America is my story even possible,” he said.
He condemned attempts among state legislators to “punish their own citizens for having the audacity to show up” to vote by closing polling locations and restricting ballot access.
“The more fundamental question is, ‘Why is the line so long in the first place?’” Senator Warnock said. “For some Americans this is not your experience, but it is the experience of so many of your fellow Americans.”
Democratic senators have urged passage of federal voting rights legislation following a campaign among Republican state legislatures to restrict ballot access and change the rules of election administration.
Last year, Republican state legislators passed at least 32 new laws in 17 states to change how elections are run, including efforts to strip oversight from election officials and put it into the hands of GOP-dominated state legislatures.
They filed at least 262 such bills in 41 states in 2021 alone, and more are expected as legislative sessions resume in 2022, according to States United Democracy Center.
A parallel effort saw the passage of at least 24 laws in 19 states restricting ballot access, after GOP legislators filed more than 440 bills in 49 states last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
The latest congressional voting rights bill – combining the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – would set national standards for early and mail-in voting, automatic voter registration and voter ID laws; make Election Day a national holiday; and provide protections for election workers and nonpartisan election administration, among other measures.
Republican senators have routinely blocked such legislation, prompting Democrats and President Joe Biden to heed calls from voting rights advocates to amend filibuster rules obstructing its passage.
“Voting rights are more important than a procedural rule, and if taking action requires a change in the rules, then it is time to change the rules,” Senator Warnock said. “When the times changed, we have always changed the rules – 160 times.”
Democratic senators sought to require opponents hold a “talking filibuster” that would allow a final, 51-senator majority vote – rather than 60 – to move legislation forward.
Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have repeatedly objected to changing those rules, effectively killing chances for congressional action on voting rights, despite their support for them.
“Are we January 5 or are we January 6?” Senator Warnock asked, pointing to the dates of his election and the certification of Electoral College votes the following day, when a mob fuelled by voter fraud conspiracy theories stormed the US Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“Are we going to give in to the forces that seek to divide us by gerrymandering us, suppressing us, and subverting the voices of some of us in pursuit of power at any cost?” he said. “Between our hopes and fears, between bigotry and beloved community … We the people have to decide which way we are going to go. What are we willing to sacrifice in order to get there?
“We cannot hide. Whatever the outcome tonight I still believe in us. I believe in the US.”