Voter Suppression in Georgia

Bloom Briefing 53: Republicans Bring Back Jim Crow

This week, Brian Kemp, the Republican Governor of Georgia, signed into law a bill passed by the Republican state legislature in Georgia to make it more challenging for voters to participate in elections and give the gerrymandered state legislature significantly greater control over local election administration and oversight. 

There are a few basic provisions to the bill.  The most straightforward is an ID requirement on mail-in balloting.  It’s unclear how consequential this will be.  The most inhumane is a prohibition on giving out bottles of water to voters waiting in line.  (Research has shown that Black voters, and voters in Fulton County specifically, wait in disproportionately long lines.)  But the most consequential is likely to be empowering the state legislature

Zack Beauchamp summarizes these provisions for Vox:

Under current law, key issues in election management — including decisions on disqualifying ballots and voter eligibility — are made by county boards of election. The new law allows the State Board of Elections to determine that these county boards are performing poorly, replacing the entire board with an administrator chosen at the state level.

At the same time, the bill enhances the General Assembly’s control over the state board.

It removes Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who famously stood up to Trump’s attempts to overturn the election results in Georgia, from his role as both chair and voting member of the board. The new chair would be appointed by the legislature, which already appoints two members of the five-person board — meaning that a full majority of the board will now be appointed by the Republican-dominated body.

The new bill would allow Republicans to seize control of how elections are administered in Fulton County and other heavily Democratic areas, disqualifying voters and ballots as they see fit.

That last bit might be a bit hyperbolic—Republicans still need a reason to disqualify a ballot—but as we saw with the 2020 election, state-level Republicans across the country were extremely eager to try and discard ballots they thought would be favorable to Democrats for even the most trivial of reasons.  For example, in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Republicans tried to throw out ballots that arrived in time but didn’t contain a date on the outside envelope.  It doesn’t take much stretching of the imagination to see how the Republican state legislature could install county elections officials in Fulton and other Democratic-leaning counties that would make it their mission to invalidate every ballot they could. 

After the coup attempt in January, I wrote about how Republicans refuse to abide by one of the fundamental principles of democracy, reciprocity:

At its core, democracy rests on the notion that the losers of elections acknowledge the winners and let the winners exercise power as they would have done.  Even the absolute most benign interpretation of Republican actions over the two months leading up to the coup attempt suggests that they were not prepared to abide by this bedrock principle of democratic governance.

The voter suppression bill in Georgia is just the latest expression of the prevailing Republican belief about democracy: it’s only valid if it empowers Republicans.  This is a phenomenon I wrote about during the early months of the Trump presidency as well:

Rather than trying to craft policies that appeal to minority voters (or just ending their demonization of minority voters), Republicans opted to just try and prevent them from voting. As the minority share of the voting population grows, the only way for this to work is for Republicans to permanently keep minority voters away from the voting booth. Otherwise, the backlash will be severe enough to make Republicans a permanent minority.

This logic is why the descent to authoritarianism is short and steep. Once a party starts marginalizing a group of voters to the extent that they vote overwhelmingly for the other side, the only electoral strategy remaining is to prevent them from voting by whatever means possible. Remember, this is the path that the Republican Party has chosen; Trump is merely the person implementing this strategy at a national level to a new extreme.

Importantly, this isn’t the first instance of major voter suppression in Georgia in recent history.  Just three years ago during the statewide elections, Brian Kemp ran for Governor while overseeing the election in his role as Secretary of State.  Leading up to that election, in his capacity as Secretary of State, he purged over 300,000 voters from the rolls who were alive and living at the same address at which they were registered.  Without voter suppression during the 2018 election in the state, it is possible Brian Kemp would not be in the governor’s mansion today and we would not have this bill.  Voter suppression begets more voter suppression. 

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Federal Oversight

None of this is exclusively a 21st-century phenomenon.  In the wake of the Civil War, the promise of Reconstruction was federal enforcement of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and thus equal protection.  The lack of political will to carry on with the project of Reconstruction after 1877 resulted in the gradual state-level adoption of Jim Crow laws targeted at voting: literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, etc. 

Many of these laws persisted until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which, like Reconstruction, promised federal oversight of access to rights.  For a while, it delivered if not equal access to the ballot, at least a barrier to the implementation of the most egregious discriminatory practices vis-à-vis voting rights. 

However, the Voting Rights Act is no longer functioning as it once did.  John Roberts capped a career-long effort to limit the power of the Voting Rights Act by gutting some of its most important provisions in Shelby County v Holder in 2013 (this piece provides excellent context on the history of the VRA and Roberts’s efforts against it). 

Roberts’s decision in Shelby County v Holder opened the door for a new generation of attacks on voting rights.  The vigor with which Republicans in many states have attempted to take advantage of this new ‘opportunity’ makes it imperative for there to be some d/Democratic response that safeguards the rights of targeted groups. 

Many of just these protections are included in the For the People Act (HR1), the first bill passed by the House of Representatives in both this congress and the last.  Among many other things, HR1 mandates that states automatically register voters, provide an online system for registration, allow same-day registration and change-of-party-affiliation, provide early voting and no-excuse mail voting and ballot drop boxes.  It also prohibits criminal disenfranchisement, candidates for office from serving as election officials (e.g., what Brian Kemp did in 2018), voter ID requirements (voters can provide last-4 SSN digits and/or sworn affidavit), and long lines or wait times for voting. 

Of course, the only way to pass the For the People Act is to eliminate the filibuster.  Republicans want no part of making access to voting easier (though they will likely claim their objections to HR1 are tied to the campaign finance provisions rather than the voting rights ones).  You can read a 25-page bulleted summary of HR1, including the very interesting provisions about election security, campaign finance, and non-partisan redistricting here.  Consider writing to your representative to support its passage.

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Additional Reading:

If you’d like to read an academic study on how Republican governance is correlated with democratic backsliding at the state-level, you’ve come to the right place.  Jacob Grumbach from the University of Washington has written just such an article.  

For the New York Times, Crispin Sartwell (with whom the author has a personal connection) writes about western philosophy’s uncomfortable history of distinguishing humans from animals.

At Vox, Zack Beauchamp writes about the 13 charts that show Republicans’ waning commitment to democracy.