WASHINGTON — Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who delivered the Republican rebuttal to President Biden’s first formal address to Congress on Wednesday, has often been touted as a conscience of the Republican caucus, one of the few black leaders in his party and a senator well-liked on both sides of the aisle. He helped sink the nomination of a Trump-era judicial nominee who had supported black voter-suppression efforts. He introduced legislation to expand the use of body cameras after a police officer shot and killed Walter Scott in 2015, and he put forward an even more substantive police-reform bill last year after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. (Democrats filibustered Scott’s most recent measure, calling it insufficient.) In some corners, Scott is seen as a future presidential contender.
On Wednesday evening, however, Scott used his time in the spotlight to make misleading, if not downright false, statements about Georgia’s controversial voting-reform bills. He also parroted one of the most pernicious myths about the fight over voting rights, one that’s been used by others to roll back progress on desegregation and voting rights in America.
In his rebuttal, Scott took issue with the criticisms of Georgia’s post-2020 efforts to change the state’s voting laws. Georgia’s law, Scott explained, “expands early voting; preserves no-excuse mail-in voting; and, despite what the President claimed, did not reduce Election Day hours.” He went on, “If you actually read this law, it’s mainstream. It will be easier to vote early in Georgia than in Democrat-run New York. But the left doesn’t want you to know that. They want people to virtue-signal by yelling about a law they haven’t even read.”
Here, Scott plucks out the facts that bolster his case while ignoring the ones that don’t. It’s true that Georgia’s new law expands the number of early-voting days and doesn’t do away with no-excuse mail-in voting. But it also creates new time limits for when early voting can happen in Georgia and leaves it up to counties whether they want to allow more early voting on the weekends before an election. It arguably makes it harder to vote if you go to the wrong polling place, and harder to extend voting hours on Election Day if problems come up. Scott doesn’t mention those provisions or the law’s ban on providing water to citizens waiting in line to vote — an all-too-common occurrence in Georgia.
Scott’s line about Georgia and New York is a popular talking point among Republicans. And New York, to be clear, has long had an archaic and confusing voting system, though a new crop of state Democrats is currently trying to change that. But to call the Georgia law “mainstream” and a win for voting rights was disingenuous at best.
Scott didn’t keep his remarks about voting rights and racial equality specific to Georgia and New York; he also spoke in the abstract about America’s “painful past,” and why that past shouldn’t be used to “dishonestly shut down debates in the present.” America was not a racist country, he said. And then he echoed an argument that has been used by conservatives from Congress to the Supreme Court and in the states to oppose voting-rights laws for decades. “It’s backwards,” he said, “to fight discrimination with different discrimination.”
Anyone who’s followed the slow degradation of voting rights at the Supreme Court level will feel a twinge of recognition hearing that line. In 2006, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that challenged whether a pair of school districts, one in Kentucky and the other in Washington state, could use the race of its students to decide which schools they attended as part of a voluntary desegregation effort. The case was viewed as a proxy in the battle over the fate of affirmative action and school desegregation; it would also be an early indicator of where the new Supreme Court chief justice, John Roberts, stood on the issue of race. In the end, the court ruled against the school districts, and Robert penned one of the most consequential lines of his time on the bench. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts wrote. That logic — that the people combating racism were the real racists — can be found in many of the Supreme Court’s subsequent decisions rolling back voting rights and racial equality.
When Senator Scott said it was wrong to “to fight discrimination with different discrimination,” he was putting himself in league with John Roberts. It was a telling choice of words in one of the most important speeches of Scott’s career so far. It’s a sign that the jaundiced logic that was once relegated to the certain fringes of the GOP has now taken center stage and found a home with even the party’s more reasonable members. Then again, Scott also said on Wednesday that “Republicans support making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” and anyone who can say that with a straight face on national TV might not be so reasonable after all.