All nine Republicans on a U.S. Senate panel—including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—voted Tuesday against legislation intended to ensure that volunteers and organizations are allowed to hand out food and water to voters stuck in long lines across the country.
Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who both represent Georgia, introduced the Voters’ Access to Water Act (pdf) in response to a sweeping law enacted by the Peach State’s Republican legislators in March that critics condemned as a “vicious attack on voter rights.” Poll workers in the state can set up self-service water receptacles, but volunteers are now banned from passing out food or water.
Ossoff, a member of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, proposed their measure as an amendment during Tuesday’s mark-up of the For the People Act, Democrats’ pro-democracy bill. The evenly divided 18-member panel voted along party lines, with all nine Democrats voting for and all nine Republicans voting against.
“Republicans would rather have you starve than vote,” declared podcast host Brian Tyler Cohen after the committee’s vote.
The Nation‘s justice correspondent Elie Mystal referenced the title of a recent book by The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer—The Cruelty Is the Point.
The proposed amendment opposed by the GOP states that “allowing volunteers to donate food and water to all people waiting in line at a polling place regardless of the voters’ political preference and without engaging in electioneering activities or partisan advocacy, helps ensure Americans who face long lines at their polling place can still exercise their Constitutional right to vote, without risk of dehydration, inadequate food, discomfort, and risks to health.”
Under the proposal, states would not be allowed to outlaw the distribution of food or nonalcoholic beverages at polling stations but could require that volunteers refrain from engaging in political activity while providing voters with snacks and drinks.
As Ossoff put it during a press conference: “This is about decency—basic decency. This is about the health and well-being of a senior citizen who’s being made to wait six hours in line to vote and allowing a volunteer to hand that senior citizen a bottle of water without facing up to a year in jail.”
Some voters in Georgia waited over three hours to cast ballots for last year’s primary election, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Ossoff said in a statement that his bill would “ensure a nonpartisan, Good Samaritan volunteer can offer voters in line a bottle of water without fear of criminal prosecution.”
Georgians who violate the state’s new election law—which has provoked multiple legal challenges—face a misdemeanor charge that could result in a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
Ossoff and Warnock’s victories in January runoff races gave Democrats the narrowest lead possible in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking tie votes.
The composition of the Senate and alarm over GOP obstruction have led progressive advocacy groups and some members of both chambers to call for abolishing the filibuster to pass various bills—including the widely popular For the People Act, which the Democrat-controlled House approved in March without Republican support.
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Throughout 2021, GOP lawmakers have proposed hundreds of state-level voter suppression bills like the new law in Georgia, bolstering national demands that Democrats in Congress send the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to President Joe Biden’s desk by any means necessary.