The rising threat of voter suppression in Georgia


Jessi Rich, Co-Editor-in-Chief

With early voting starting up in Georgia this week and Election Day less than a month away, the anticipation for the 2020 Presidential Election is steadily rising. After a presidential debate that was painful to watch, to say the least, participating in American democracy and getting out to the polls seems more imperative now than it’s ever been before. The problem with our nation’s democracy, however, is that it isn’t much of a democracy at all. Thanks to a history–and a present–filled with covert voter suppression tactics, millions of Americans are being silenced.


Georgia, in fact, is a prime example of voter suppression. In June of this year, the state held a primary that was originally supposed to happen in March. Delayed first to May 19 and again to June 9 because of the pandemic, poll workers struggled to get the new, high-tech poll machines up and running. The pandemic also resulted in the closing of several polling locations, creating long lines at the precincts still open. Some voters waited for upwards of eight hours just to cast their ballot.


For safety reasons, several Georgia voters opted for absentee ballots rather than going in-person. Thanks to delays in the processing of these absentee ballot requests, however, many of these voters received their ballots just days before the election date, or not at all. 


The catastrophic primary drew the nation’s eyes towards Georgia’s flawed voting system but not for the first time. The state was under similar watch in 2018, during the gubernatorial race between Republican candidate Brian Kemp and Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams.


The first detail that should raise eyebrows is the fact that, in 2018, Kemp was serving as Georgia’s Secretary of State. That is, as he was running against Abrams, he had full control of the election system and the process by which voting would occur throughout the entirety of the state. In the documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy”, author and activist Ari Berman pointed out that such a conflict of interest “would have been illegal in virtually every other advanced democracy in the entire world.” But not here, in the land of the free.


During the race, Kemp closed a total of 214 polling places across Georgia. Widespread poll closures forced a number of Georgians that formerly voted at locations ten minutes away to drive to locations tens of miles away instead. The amount of time and money these journeys take discouraged a number of voters from bothering to go to the polls.


Poll closures are just one suppression tactic among several others, however. Kemp also enforced an infamous policy called “exact match.” Exact match requires that a voter’s name and signature must exactly match the name and signature on file in other government documents. 


Though the policy may seem benign, exact match targets ethnic and racial minorities. Black, Latinx, and Asian American voters are more likely to have names that the predominantly white election officials may not be familiar with. In fact, some officials may spell names wrong when processing a voter’s registration form simply because they have not seen the name before.


The result is a large number of unnecessarily delayed voter registrations. For instance, black people made up around 32 percent of Georgia’s population in 2018, however, 70 percent of voters on hold with Kemp’s election offices that year were black.


Requiring that signatures remain consistent presents a new problem. Sean J. Young with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says, “A lot of people for whom English isn’t their first language will have an inconsistent signature, because they have to write and sign their American name.”


It wasn’t just a problem in 2018, either. This year, the Brennan Center for Justice reports that 80 percent of Georgia voters whose ballots were rejected on the basis of exact match were people of color. 


Georgia is also one of the 35 states that enforces a voter ID law, requiring voters to bring an accepted form of photo ID with them when they vote. While this law also appears to be harmless, not every American has a state-issued ID. Photo ID laws prevent some 21 million people from voting, which is roughly ten percent of the electorate, according to Berman. Likewise, in some states (such as Texas) the photo ID law disenfranchises younger voters, chiefly college students, whose student IDs may not be accepted at the polls.


With such an obvious motive behind these voter suppression laws, it begs the question of why they are allowed to stand. Two reasons account for the rampant crushing of the American vote. 


One is the idea of voter fraud. Voter suppression, say supporters of these laws, is a necessary measure to prevent voters from voting twice, or to keep voters from impersonating someone else at the polls. It’s not suppression, they say; it’s protection. 


Protection from what, however? The numbers show election after election that voter fraud occurrences are negligible. It happens; that is true. However, a study conducted by a Columbia University political scientist found that the rare reports of voter fraud can often be traced to “false claims by the loser of a close race, mischief and administrative or voter error.”


Besides the fairly insignificant threat of voter fraud, a 2013 Supreme Court case also keeps voter suppression laws standing. The case, Shelby v. Holder, effectively reversed the improvements the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made for the American voting system. The case, which challenged gerrymandering after redrawn districts in Shelby County, Alabama caused the only African American city council member to lose his seat, resulted in a fundamental restructuring of the Voting Rights Act. 


A 5-4 ruling decided the 9 states whose election systems the federal government had formerly overseen in order to prevent voter suppression (most of them Republican majority states in the South), would no longer be held to that standard. Now, state governments could do as they wished.


The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among the four dissenters, said about the Shelby v. Holder decision, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”


In other words, the fight for the vote isn’t just here in Georgia, even if our state is now ground zero. In fact, the entirety of American democracy is in a crisis, in a way it hasn’t been since the end of Reconstruction. But, all hope isn’t lost. Even if you’re too young to vote, there’s still plenty you can do to help mobilize voters in your area. Many associations and campaigns are accepting volunteers to help people get registered and remind people to vote. If you’re uncomfortable doing so, you can call your family members and/or family friends and remind them to cast their vote in this election. 


The United States Constitution begins with three famous words: “We the People.” Yet, it certainly didn’t mean all the people back when the Constitution was written, and it doesn’t mean all the people today. Thus, the coming election will do more than determine what the next four years will look like; it will evaluate whether we’re finally ready to turn those three words into a reality.


Because we’re not there yet. Frankly, we’re not even close.


By: Jessi Rich

Image: Wall Street Journal