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The attack on voting rights in Georgia

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The Georgia state capitol building in Atlanta. Wikimedia/J. Glover

The State of Georgia set out to conduct a primary election during a global pandemic. June 9, 2020, Election Day, did not go well. From absentee ballots that were never delivered, to inoperable voting machines, to hours long waits—not to mention the risk of contracting a deadly virus—voters faced numerous obstacles, some of them insurmountable. It’s not completely knowable to what degree this debacle was the result of an overstretched election infrastructure managed by an inept leadership and to what degree it was the result of deliberate, strategic voter suppression. What is unquestionable is that in Georgia elections, apparent incompetence operates in service of effective disenfranchisement.

James Hare is a researcher and writer based in Decatur, Georgia. 

Voting rights groups have described this election as “unacceptable” and “a complete catastrophe”. With the COVID-19 pandemic prompting the closure of polling places and creating election worker shortages, Georgia took the unprecedented positive step of mailing all registered voters applications for absentee ballots. Unfortunately, many voters reported that requested absentee ballots never reached their mailboxes. Even Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for Governor, was forced to vote in person after receiving an absentee ballot with an unusable return envelope. Upon reaching the polls, voters faced long lines, especially in African American neighbourhoods, waiting up to five hours to cast ballots. Politicians traded barbs over who was to blame for this situation, with Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger blaming county election boards, while the counties pointed to problems with the equipment supplied by Raffensperger’s office and grossly inadequate technical and logistical support. Whoever is to blame, the end result was the same: disenfranchisement. For many, this portends a worrisome preview of the November general election, when turnout is expected to be much higher.

Voter suppression is nothing new in Georgia. From 1871, when Reconstruction in Georgia effectively ended, until 1965, an explicitly white supremacist regime disenfranchised Black voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended this formal disenfranchisement—at least for those without felony convictions—and provided other meaningful voting rights protections, but the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to void some of the Act’s most meaningful provisions contributed to a new wave of voter suppression across the United States. In Georgia, we have seen one of the fastest re-emergence of disenfranchisement in the country. This report will consider this history then turn to 21st-century voter suppression. This suppression reached a pinnacle in 2018 when the Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, oversaw an election in which he himself was running for Governor against Stacey Abrams, the first Black woman in the United States to be nominated for Governor by a major political party. Kemp’s illegitimate victory showed Georgia Republicans perhaps their only path to holding onto power in a rapidly changing state. To counter this disenfranchisement, a reinvigorated state Democratic Party, as well as independent formations, are fighting back in support of voting rights and electoral justice.

Jim Crow and the Voting Rights Act

As a patriarchal, white, settler colony built on stolen land with an economy based on the labour of enslaved people, Georgia’s so-called democracy has always restricted political participation to a privileged few. This social order seemed on the verge of collapse with the Civil War and Reconstruction. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution, passed between 1865 and 1870, the years immediately following the Civil War, ended slavery, established citizenship rights for African Americans, and gave all men, regardless of race, the right to vote. (The ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 ended disenfranchisement on the basis of sex, but voting rights did not become meaningful for Black women in the South until 1965.)

Reconstruction in Georgia did not last as long as it did in some other Southern states, but during Congressional Reconstruction—when Radical Republicans in Congress advanced a racial justice agenda over the opposition of President Andrew Johnson—the US Government threw its military weight behind protecting the civil and political rights of Black people. In 1868, a multiracial convention adopted a Georgia state constitution which established voting rights for Black people, gave married women control of their property, established free public education, and provided debt relief. White and Black Republicans (the party of Lincoln) emerged as the strongest political force in the state, taking tentative control in the face of violent resistance and racist terror from the Ku Klux Klan. Reconstruction in Georgia ended in 1871 when “Redeemers,” conservative white Democrats (the party of the Confederacy), took control of both houses of the legislature, greatly assisted by the suppression of Republican votes through racist violence. By 1877, a new Redeemer constitution reversed the political gains of Reconstruction and effectively disenfranchised Black Georgians for nearly a century.

With the hopes of Reconstruction dashed, Georgia entered a long period of legally enforced segregation and disenfranchisement known as Jim Crow. Jim Crow was an overarching system of racial control, of which restricting the right to vote was but one part. It included a set of restrictive laws and rules that effectively disenfranchised Black voters. Measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, onerous record-keeping requirements, and all-white Democratic primaries—not to mention violent repression, including the Atlanta Massacre of 1906 and numerous lynchings—prevented Black participation in public, political life. Rendered voiceless in state politics through deliberate oppression, the economic and social concerns of Black communities remained unaddressed.

Known as “the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement”, Georgia was central to the Black Freedom Struggle. Black people had been resisting segregation and disenfranchisement since the establishment of the Jim Crow system in the late 19th century—and long before then—but the struggle reached a new phase in the aftermath of World War II. Societal advances in the 1940s prompted an organized white supremacist backlash. That backlash retrenched segregationist policies and intimidated activists through violent retaliation, setting the stage for mass protest in the 1950s and 1960s. Protests in the cities achieved victories and faced setbacks, while the rural movement—facing deep poverty and violent repression—struggled to cohere. With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, the movement did not come to a conclusion, but entered a new phase as campaigns for electoral representation, educational desegregation, and economic empowerment continued.

Among the legislative achievements of the movement, the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 again brought the force of the United States Government behind Black people’s right to vote. This law included general provisions, such as outlawing literacy tests, that applied to the entire country as well as special provisions that applied to areas with a history of violating voting rights, including Georgia. These districts were subject to “preclearance”, the requirement that they must receive approval from the US Justice Department or the federal courts before changing their electoral procedures.

The Voting Rights Act was a tremendous success, drastically increasing African American voter registration and election participation and helping to greatly expand the number of Black elected officials. In 1972, Andrew Young was elected as the first Black Congressperson to represent Georgia since Reconstruction, and in 1973 Atlanta elected Maynard Jackson as its first Black mayor. Jimmy Carter’s 1970 campaign for Georgia Governor was a conservative—even racist—one, and he received little support from Black voters. Immediately upon taking office, however, he spoke out against racial discrimination and became a strong supporter of civil rights, and it was southern Black voters who provided him with his margin of victory against Gerald Ford in the 1976 Presidential election.

Modern Voter Suppression and the Evisceration of the Voting Rights Act

Despite the successes of the Voting Rights Act in ending discrimination at the polls, it did not usher in a golden age of electoral participation. In Presidential elections, only about half of eligible voters cast ballots, and the numbers are far lower in off-year elections and primaries. Still the Voting Rights Act ended most forms of race-based disenfranchisement and provided meaningful protections. In 2013, this abruptly changed, however, with the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Shelby County v. Holder. This decision held that the conditions which originally justified preclearance were no longer present and that therefore this core provision of the law was no longer justified. In the logic of the Supreme Court, the Voting Rights Act’s success, it seems, justified dismantling it.

Even before this ruling, states were beginning to enact new forms of voter suppression, but Shelby County opened the floodgates. Around the time of the 2010 midterm elections, states had begun adopting new laws and regulations that would make ballot access more difficult and keep underrepresented groups away from the polls. Voter suppression in the twenty-first-century United States is not a fringe phenomenon but a widespread, coordinated effort to exclude whole swaths of the population from the electorate. In Georgia, even more so than in the US as a whole, voter suppression is, as Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Carl Davidson have argued, a “repudiation of the changing demographics”. In Georgia, voter suppression has taken the form of strict identification requirements, voter purges, obstructing registration, closing polling places, limiting early voting, disenfranchising many people with felony convictions, and gerrymandering legislative districts.

Voter identification (ID) laws are among the most prominent legislative effort aimed at voter suppression. These laws require voters to present a government-issued photo ID at the polls, ostensibly to prevent voter impersonation fraud. Georgia passed a voter ID law in 2005 and received federal approval to implement a modified version of the law in 2007. For voters who already possess a driver’s license or passport, this law and others like it doesn’t present much of an obstacle, but people without these documents now face the tedious task of assembling various paperwork and making their way to a government office that can issue a state ID, which Georgia will issue for free—a condition that had to be met in order to get judicial approval (approval that is no longer required after Shelby County). Studies have identified these prospective voters as more likely to be young or elderly, poor or working class, African American, and Latino. In other words, probable Democratic voters (older voters do tend to vote Republican, but low-income older voters are an exception to this rule). A 2012 Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that, despite this law, African-American and Latino voters turned out in increasing numbers, but also that thousands of voters were turned away because of this law and that state officials could not identify a single case of prevented fraud.

Accusations that non-citizens have been voting have justified voter roll purges in several states. As in the case of voter ID, there is little evidence that non-citizens are casting votes, but the proposed remedy places disproportionate burdens on Latino and African American voters. This racist, right-wing trope follows from stereotypes of criminal foreigners who seek to overwhelm and displace “real Americans.” These beliefs have justified voter purges in Florida and elsewhere along with numerous anti-immigrant policies and the Presidential campaign of the White House’s current occupant. In December 2019, Georgia purged 309,000 voters from its rolls, nearly 4 percent of registered voters. Many of these names were people who had moved or whose cancelations were otherwise justified, and legal challenges kept tens of thousands of other voters on the rolls. Ultimately, though, nearly 100,000 registrations were cancelled over the objections of voting rights advocates. While federal law does, sensibly, require states to update their lists of registered voters, Georgia has a “use it or lose it” law that cancels voters’ registrations if they have not voted for five years. Given low turnout in off-year elections, many voters could show up to vote in the 2020 Presidential election and find out their registration has been cancelled. Furthermore, even consistent voters have reported that they have been purged without explanation despite voting at every opportunity.

Another widespread form of voter suppression is the creation of obstacles to registration. Nationwide, as of 2016, about 67.6 million potential voters, 30 percent of the voting-age population, are not registered. In the United States, where the burden of registration falls entirely on the individual voter, community-based registration drives have been essential in helping to alleviate the deficiencies of this system. In Georgia, during the lead-up to the 2014 races for Governor and US Senate, the New Georgia Project—spearheaded by the state’s House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams—set out to register some of Georgia’s hundreds of thousands of unregistered citizens and, along with partner groups, succeeded in registering nearly 120,000 new voters. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, sensing the threat to Republican dominance, accused the group of registering fraudulent applications, issued subpoenas, and held up tens of thousands of registrations. This investigation directly interfered with the New Georgia Project’s registration work, had a chilling effect on community groups seeking to register voters, and kept tens of thousands of new voters from registering in time for the election. In 2017, the investigation was closed with no findings of wrongdoing by the New Georgia Project.

Along with making it more difficult to register, several states, including Georgia, have made it more difficult to vote. From 2012 to 2018, 214 polling places in Georgia were closed, nearly 8 percent of the state’s total. These precincts are disproportionately located in rural and impoverished regions of the state. During the June 2020 primary election, virus concerns shuttered many more precincts, greatly exacerbating this ongoing trend. In Fulton County—the state’s most populous, encompassing most of the city of Atlanta—30 out of 198 precincts remained closed. For this primary, every voter was mailed an absentee ballot application, but not the ballot itself, encouraging many voters to vote by mail, a positive. But the Republican-controlled state government decided not to mail out such applications for the November general election, requiring absentee voters to navigate a convoluted process to request a ballot. Voting absentee is also not a guarantee that your vote will be counted. Georgia has a troubling record of rejecting significant numbers of absentee ballots over signature discrepancies, missing birthdates, or other minor issues.

Disenfranchising people who have been convicted of felonies is nothing new in Georgia, nor is Georgia unique in this practice. In 1877, Georgia adopted a new constitution intended to roll back the rights gained by formerly enslaved people during Reconstruction. One provision of this constitution states that “no person who has been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude may register, remain registered, or vote except upon completion of the sentence.” In practice, “moral turpitude” remains poorly defined, and upon being convicted of any felony, Georgians lose their right to vote until they complete their prison sentence as well as any probation or parole periods in addition to paying off any outstanding fines. The number of people in Georgia under criminal supervision is staggering, with 404,000 people on probation—more than any other state. As of 2018, more than 266,000 Georgians were prohibited from voting due to their felony sentences. Twenty other states have similar provisions to Georgia. Eleven states have even more stringent policies. Sixteen states prevent those convicted of felonies from voting while imprisoned. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow incarcerated people to vote.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing districts in such a way as to benefit one political party or group over others. After gaining full control of the redistricting process for the first time in 2011, Republicans drew legislative districts in such a way as to pack as many likely Democratic voters, especially Black voters, into as few districts as possible, resulting in a map that the late Congressperson and civil rights hero John Lewis called “an affront to the spirit and the letter of the Voting Rights Act.” As a result, Georgia has the least competitive General Assembly elections of any state, with 81 percent of seats having only one major party candidate on the ballot. Voters’ choices don’t mean much when there is no choice! More precise demographic data and mapping technologies are contributing to more effective gerrymandering, but it’s still not perfect, thankfully. In 2018 demographic change since 2011, along with suburban backlash against the Republican administration in Washington, helped propel Lucy McBath, an African-American gun control advocate, into the Congressional seat once held by the archconservative former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and by Tom Price, who left the seat to join the current Republican administration as its first Secretary of Health and Human Services before resigning in disgrace. Even after McBath’s upset, despite near parity between Republican and Democratic voters, Georgia’s House delegation remained nine Republicans—all white—and five Democrats—all Black (with all but one representing metro Atlanta).

The 2018 Election

Such is the environment of suppression and disenfranchisement in which Stacey Abrams launched her historic bid for Governor. In many ways, this election began years earlier with the New Georgia Project’s massive voter registration drive. Stacey Abrams launched this initiative in 2014 in order to register and “civically engage” the “New American Majority,” that is “people of color, those 18 to 29 years of age, and unmarried women.” As of September 2019, the New Georgia Project reports having registered almost half a million voters in every county in Georgia.

The Abrams campaign was built on a foundation of outreach and engagement with neglected voters. Well ahead of the Democratic primary, which she won in a blowout, Abrams built a state-wide grassroots operation focused on turning out previous non-voters, along with reliable Democratic voters and suburban white voters who had soured on the extremism of her opponent’s politics. A hallmark of this grassroots operation was field offices throughout the state and a door-knocking operation that reached out to “unlikely” voters and engaged them on the issues. Abrams is no radical, but her broadly liberal campaign focused on healthcare, public education, and criminal justice reform, contrasting sharply with Brian Kemp’s efforts to stoke the resentments of rural white voters by brandishing guns in his television ads and spreading fears about immigrants. The wild contrast between the two campaigns and the incredibly tight poll numbers led some to describe Georgia as the most polarized state in the US.

Abrams’ approach proved successful if not ultimately victorious. She won more votes than any other Democrat in Georgia history. Four years prior, Jason Carter’s and Michelle Nunn’s runs for Governor and Senate, respectively, focused on winning over white moderates, accompanied by heavy nostalgia for the days of Governor Jimmy Carter (Jason’s grandfather) and Senator Sam Nunn (Michelle’s father). They fell short by about 300,000 votes. Stacey Abrams closed the gap to 54,000 votes. Given that voter suppression and disenfranchisement marred this election, it’s hard to deny that Brian Kemp stole this election.

As Georgia’s Secretary of State, Kemp was responsible for overseeing his own election, placing him in an ideal position to suppress his opponent’s votes. Indeed, as we have seen above, for years prior to the election, Abrams and Kemp had found themselves at odds as Kemp’s office sought to slow or stop the New Georgia Project’s voter registration efforts.

In the end, Stacey Abrams refused to concede. After listing the many irregularities that marred this election, she acknowledged that Kemp would become the next governor:

But to watch an elected official—who claims to represent the people of this state, baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote—has been truly appalling. So, to be clear, this is not a speech of concession.

Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede. But my assessment is that the law currently allows no further viable remedy.

Noting that in the normal order of politics she would be expected to stoically accept defeat and wish her opponent well, she countered, “But stoicism is a luxury and silence is a weapon for those who would quiet the voices of the people, and I will not concede because the erosion of our democracy is not right.”

Eight years as Secretary of State had allowed Kemp to hold back the tide of Georgia’s changing demographics and to ensure Republican control of the state for at least one more term.

Voting Rights Now

Despite Kemp’s electoral victory, the struggle for voting rights in Georgia continues. In her non-concession speech, Stacey Abrams announced the launch of Fair Fight Georgia. Since then, she has raised tens of millions of dollars for this work, including large donations from the likes of Michael Bloomberg. Organizationally, Abrams founded several separate but related organizations: Fair Fight, Fair Fight Action, Fair Fight PAC, and Fair Count.

Fair Fight works to “promote fair elections in Georgia and around the country, encourage voter participation in elections, and educate voters about elections and their voting rights.” Fair Fight Action “engages in voter mobilization and education activities and advocates for progressive issues; in addition, Fair Fight Action has mounted significant programs to combat voter suppression in Georgia and nationally.” Fair Fight PAC “has initiated programs to support voter protection programs at state parties around the country and is engaging in partnerships to support and elect pro voting rights, progressive leaders.” Fair Count is to the Census what Fair Fight is to elections. They seek to make sure that members of “hard to count” communities are included in the Census, ensuring that these communities are not short-changed in the allocation of federal resources and political representation.

Fair Fight and related organizations have a charismatic leader in Abrams, deep pockets, and deep connections to mainstream Democratic politicians and donors across the country. As such, they have taken a front and centre position in the struggle against voter suppression in Georgia, but they are not the only groups working for voting rights in the state.

Numerous national organizations are working for voting rights in Georgia and elsewhere, including venerable liberal groups like Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Common Cause has campaigned against gerrymandering, organized volunteers to assist voters, and called for an end to felony disenfranchisement. Among its diverse priorities, the ACLU of Georgia supports legislation to expand voting rights in Georgia, opposes gerrymandering, and works to defend voting rights through campaigning, lobbying, and legal actions.

Multi-issue grassroots groups have also taken on the cause of electoral justice, connecting voting rights to more radical demands. Beginning in 2014, Moral Mondays protests have taken place in Georgia. Originating in North Carolina with Rev. William J. Barber, II, this multiracial coalition has protested for voting rights among its many demands for a just society. Evolving into the Georgia Poor People’s Campaign, part of a national movement, this coalition positions voting rights as one part of its work “lifting up and deepening the leadership of those most affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation” and engages in direct action in support of moral revival.

Conclusion: Political Participation During a Pandemic

Elections do have consequences, and as I write this Georgia is facing the tragic consequences of Brian Kemp’s election. Kemp has criminally mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic, waiting too long to implement social distancing measures then reopening non-essential businesses before any other state. He has refused to mandate masks and has actually fought municipalities that seek to implement stricter measures, going so far as to sue the City of Atlanta and its Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, over Atlanta’s mask mandate and other efforts to control the spread of the virus. How many Georgians have become sick and died because of Kemp’s inability to address this crisis?

Meanwhile, amid a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Georgians of colour, the epidemic of police violence against Black people has continued. The February murder of Ahmaud Arbery by self-styled vigilantes outside Brunswick, Georgia, initially led to no arrests or charges against his killers. When nationwide protests emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, Georgia was no exception. Black Lives Matter protests have taken place all over the state from Atlanta to small towns like Madison, Cartersville, Newnan, and Loganville, facing off against police brutality and repression, as in the rest of the United States. On June 12, Atlanta Police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, an African-American man who had fallen asleep in Wendy’s drive-through. The next day, that Wendy’s was burned to the ground as protesters gathered at the site. Following the indictment of Brooks’ killers, the Atlanta Police Chief resigned and Atlanta police staged a sick-in, rejecting any move toward accountability. By early July, Kemp had called up the National Guard, ostensibly to defend state buildings.

Following the botched June primary, one might expect state officials to take concerted efforts to make sure that everyone can safely exercise their right to vote in the August run-off and November general elections. Instead, they have moved in the opposite direction. Rather than mailing registered voters absentee ballot applications—as they did in June—they now require a convoluted process of downloading a PDF application from the state website, printing it out, filling it out, and returning it to the appropriate county’s election board. If in-person voting failed so badly during a primary election with a record number of absentee ballots, we can only expect the situation to be much worse in a general election where the turnout will be much higher.

How Georgia conducts the November election will be deeply consequential. Not only will there be the Presidential election, in which Georgia will be hotly contested, but both US Senate seats are up for grabs, not to mention every seat in the House of Representatives. Each year, Georgia becomes younger and more racially diverse. Democrats might be expected to benefit from this demographic shift but only if their supporters vote. By keeping likely Democratic voters away from the polls, Georgia’s Republicans have managed to cling to power in a rapidly changing state. If they succeed in suppressing their opponents’ votes this fall, it could have a dramatic impact on the future not just of Georgia but of the entire country.