VOTER SUPPRESSION: THE GRAND OLD PARTY'S GRAND OLD PASTIME
One of the Deep South’s most historic and sinister legacies is alive and well today in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Stacey Abrams knows it after her historic technical gubernatorial loss to then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp in 2018
(imagine Georgians’ surprise to learn that there was no law in that state against running in an election which one was tasked to oversee; imagine their even greater surprise when voters in Democratic districts showed up to the polls to find that they had been dumped from the rolls, moved to a different precinct without their knowledge, or forced to wait in line for hours upon hours to use the one or two electronic voting machines allotted to that polling place, despite the fact that there had always been ample machines available in the past).
But Georgia’s 2018 election wasn’t the first appearance of Kemp’s tactics--far from it. Kemp in particular has been sharpening his vote-suppressing skills since he took office as Secretary of State in 2010, and Republicans have been perfecting these strategies even longer. But the bitter truth is that the white conservatives in power in the South have been suppressing the minority vote since Black Americans wrestled that right from the twisted fingers of their former masters’ grandchildren and before. And with a century and a half of experience, the modern Grand Old Party has gotten very, very good at being very, very sneaky.
Georgia’s 2018 election was an exercise in bureaucratic disenfranchisement, and the Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is what has made it all possible. In that decision, a naive and clearly privileged Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that “our country has changed” since the struggles that minority groups, particularly the descendants of enslaved African peoples, endured between the time they earned the right to vote on paper and the time they finally earned that right in practice, when the days of fire hoses and attack dogs disappeared in favor of a more subtle and perhaps sinister form of voter suppression.
Investigative reporter Greg Palast began bringing to light the suspicious purging of thousands of names from Georgia’s voter rolls since as far back as 2013, when Georgia Secretary of State Kemp began disenfranchising thousands of mostly minority voters in liberal-leaning districts. According to New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, during his eight years as secretary of state, Kemp closed nearly half of Georgia’s polling precincts, forcing voters to travel farther and take more time away from work to cast their vote on election day. And in the 2018 gubernatorial election, many of those arrived at their polling place to find that they were no longer registered to vote, thanks to policies like Kemp’s 2017 “exact-match” policy, requiring information on voter registration documents to match exactly the records kept by Georgia’s Department of Driver Services. Those whose information was not an exact match were moved off the voter rolls to “pending” status, and could still technically vote using a provisional ballot, but many polling places ran out of provisional ballots on election day, and more than a few “pending” voters were told that officials simply didn’t have any. According to the Associated Press, in a state where only 32 percent of the population is Black, some 70 percent of the 53,000 “pending” voter registrations on hold by Kemp’s office at the time of the election belonged to Black voters.
A variation on the “exact-match” rule saw some 600 absentee ballots tossed out because election officials believed that signatures in election documents did not match; an October, 2018 judgment in a federal suit brought by the ACLU of Georgia ruled against the office of the Secretary of State, finding that officials cannot reject absentee ballots without due process.
Stories abound of poll workers insisting that a voter was at the wrong precinct and was supposed to vote elsewhere, only for the voter to find that he or she was not on the roll there either. People stood in line for hours, winding through buildings, down hallways and even out of doors and into the rain to wait for their chance to cast a vote. Part of the problem was the more than 700 wrapped voting machines locked up in suburban Atlanta warehouses, sequestered due to an order from a federal judge in a 2017 lawsuit which sought to shift Georgia’s elections back to the old method of paper ballots. But rather than finding replacements for the out of service machines, the secretary of state’s office simply decided that Georgia could do without them, and then feigned surprise at the high turnout on election day, insisting that by the time they realized how long people were going to have to wait to cast a ballot, it was simply too late to procure more machines. You don’t say! The polling place at Savannah High School in an economically depressed area of east Savannah had only a single voting machine, and voters stood in line for hours to use it.
Causing even more voters to be purged from Georgia’s rolls was the state’s “Use It or Lose It” law, instituted in 2017, which allowed Kemp’s office to purge more than 500,000 registered voters from the rolls, eight percent of Georgia’s total registered voters according to NPR, making them ineligible to vote in the next election simply because they had chosen not to vote in the election prior.
The cumulative effects of actions to stifle the progressive and minority vote are plain. Rather than instituting poll taxes or “white primaries” or burning crosses on lawns as in the old days of the Jim Crow South, savvier conservatives have slowly and quietly chipped away at protections intended to keep everyone enfranchised, and over the past ten years the erosion has begun to make a difference. It certainly has in Georgia.
Since the 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder case was heard in the Supreme Court, Harvard researcher Desmond Ang has been monitoring this erosion, particularly in the Deep South where the minority vote has historically been quashed; Ang points out that minority turnout in the last two national elections has dipped to almost historic lows. Georgia is not the only state where a candidate was allowed to preside over the election in which he ran, and it is not the only state where voter protections have been quietly repealed and tossed away like the very ballots cast by those whose Constitutional rights are being trampled. It has been a test kitchen for the larger Republican party, where recipes have been tried and edited and rewritten to be copied by other states.
With elections as close as Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election and the 2016 presidential election, we can ill afford to let a single voter who wants their voice heard be stifled. In the little time left before November 2020, let’s support efforts by the ACLU, Voting Rights Lab and others to ensure that every American vote is finally counted, and block efforts to cheat the electorate of their right to choose their representatives.