When it came time to ask a question during a hearing on voting rights on Monday, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) chose a simple one.
“I just want to ask one question off the top, since my colleagues continue to talk about voter fraud. Do you see a lot of voter fraud?” she said Monday during the first meeting of a subcommittee focused on elections and voting in Brownsville, Texas.
It was something of a rhetorical question for the panel of longtime Texas voting rights litigators whom Democrats had picked to testify. George Korbel, one of the witnesses, quickly responded: “Almost none.”
“Oh OK, I just want to be sure, because that’s the narrative,” Fudge told those at the meeting, which was only attended by Democrats. “It’s not violations of the Voting Rights Act ― it’s voter fraud.”
Fudge kept a straight face during her question, but it was easy to hear the simmering frustration. For years, Republicans have attempted to justify the need for new voting restrictions by exaggerating the existence of voter fraud, which in reality is very rare. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, saying it was outdated. The eliminated provision sat at the heart of the VRA: a formula requiring jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination to preclear their voting changes with the federal government.
Democrats have made voting rights a top priority since they won control of the House of Representatives in November, and the subcommittee Fudge is chairing is charged with compiling a record of discrimination that can be used to justify a new formula to require certain places to preclear their voting changes. Reinstating the preclearance provision would be a remarkably powerful legislative triumph, because in theory it would block discriminatory voting policies from going into effect. However, such a measure is unlikely to get support from Republicans, who control the Senate.
But Fudge’s question on Monday underscored how Democrats, newly empowered in the House, are aggressively pushing back on allegations of fraud while also documenting the very real evidence of voter suppression in the United States.
As Democrats build that record, they are working to expose specious allegations of voter fraud and demonstrate that a much larger problem is laws that make it more difficult for poor people and people of color to vote. After the Supreme Court reached its 2013 decision, states moved swiftly to implement voting restrictions that included measures like voter ID requirements and cuts to early voting.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) pressed J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department lawyer who has pushed misleading claims of voter fraud, about allegations of voter suppression in Georgia. Adams testified that “it has never been easier to register to vote and to vote in America than it is in 2019,” so Bass wanted to know if those claims of suppression were just made up.
Adams said Brian Kemp, at the time Georgia’s top election official, was acting within the law last year when he didn’t recuse himself from overseeing his own race for governor, and that Kemp was exercising “reasonable list maintenance” when he aggressively removed voters from the state rolls.
“You call it reasonable list maintenance?” Bass said. “I think it’s called voter suppression.”
You call it reasonable list maintenance? I think it’s called voter suppression. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) on Brian Kemp's purging of the Georgia voter rolls
Adams did acknowledge it was “absolutely not” untrue to say people of color have encountered particular difficulty voting in some cases, although Bass moved to another speaker before he could go into detail.
In another exchange at the January hearing, Hans von Spakovsky, another former Justice Department lawyer who has made misleading fraud accusations, accused Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, of “wildly exaggerating” instances of voter suppression.
The comment prompted a strong response from Bass, who pointed to numerous examples of voter suppression that Ifill and Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, had just testified about.
“You’ve said enough,” Bass said. “The idea that we did not have problems in the 2018 election ― the idea that all the testimony from Ms. Gupta and Ms. Ifill was just an exaggeration ― is really an embarrassment. And I think people ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
Von Spakovsky went on to argue that voter discrimination in the United States is “rare.” He pointed to voter identification laws in Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina that allow someone to vote if they do not have an acceptable ID but have a “reasonable impediment.”
Gupta and Ifill quickly pointed out inconsistencies in von Spakovsky’s comments. Gupta noted that in 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down the North Carolina law, saying it targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.” Ifill noted that the “reasonable impediment” exceptions were only implemented after officials reached settlements in lawsuits.
“This is the kind of testimony that I think is so disturbing, because it is so misleading,” she said. “It’s this kind of shading of the truth, shading of the reality of what it takes for lawyers and communities to challenge discriminatory voting practices.”
“If we have a long history of voter fraud in this country, we have a longer history of racism and voter disenfranchisement,” she said. “It’s time we stop dealing with fantasy and we deal with facts.”