Georgia Primary Sends Us a Warning — November Could Be a Voting Rights Disaster

For many years now, voting rights groups have warned that U.S. election infrastructure is crumbling: that low-income residents are facing a growing litany of obstacles to voting, deliberately put in their path by conservative legislators and jurists; that elections are open to being hacked and otherwise manipulated by overseas governments and other entities; and that, as the Voting Rights Act has been gutted by the Supreme Court, voters of color are once again being systematically discriminated against by city and state authorities in many parts of the country.

Late last year, the Brennan Center documented how 25 states have enacted voting rights restrictions in recent years. Amongst these, Georgia, which is now shaping up to be a key swing state in November’s elections, has stood out for the lengths that its elected officials have gone to make voting harder for poor, especially non-white, people: Its legislature has passed onerous “no match, no vote” laws, so that if a name on the voter registration form is spelled even slightly differently from that person’s name on other state records, they cannot vote. It has also gone out of its way to limit early voting options. And it has imposed lengthy deadlines for registering to vote ahead of the election — which resulted in many tens of thousands of people losing access to the ballot in 2018.

That November, Republican Brian Kemp (who, at the time, was the secretary of state in charge of Georgia’s election machinery) narrowly defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams in the gubernatorial race. It was an election marred by allegations of extreme voter suppression. Since then, a bad situation has only gotten worse.

This all came to a head in the Peach State this week, when the country bore witness to an electoral fiasco so extreme that it ought to set warning lights flashing red from coast to coast regarding the November election.

Record numbers of Georgians — 30 times the number in 2018 — requested mail-in ballots to participate in Tuesday’s primary. But for those who either didn’t receive these ballots or opted to vote in person, the lines to vote in Atlanta stretched for hours. It turned out that the state had bought new voting machines — from a company with alleged ties to GOP Gov. Brian Kemp — that had all kinds of glitches. Many polling stations in poor communities simply couldn’t get the machines up and running, for reasons that included operational pin numbers being non-functional. And, because so many other polling stations had been closed in these neighborhoods in recent years; because many poll workers, out of fear that if they showed up they would get sick, stayed away; because, in the venues that did open, new social spacing and cleaning protocols dramatically slowed down the rate at which voters could be processed through, the simple act of casting a ballot turned into an epic, time-consuming, frustrating, drama for untold thousands of Atlanta residents. Meanwhile, in wealthier, whiter parts of the state, there were no such snafus.

In Atlanta, there were, from the morning onward, reports of people leaving polling stations, after waiting for much of the day, without having been able to cast their ballots. And for those who stuck it out, as regular voting hours drew to a close, the lines were still so long that several counties in the greater Atlanta area had to extend their opening times well into the night. The next day, Stacey Abrams slammed the debacle as a combination of “malfeasance” and “incompetence” on the part of state officials.

It would be bad enough if this fiasco was limited to Georgia. But, of course, Kemp’s state isn’t alone in its pandemic-era malfeasance around voting access. During Wisconsin’s primary earlier in the spring, thousands of people who requested absentee ballots didn’t receive them in time, and, despite this, the state’s GOP legislators fought a rearguard action to drastically restrict the deadline for when such ballots had to be returned. In Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Nevada, recent votes have all been marred by either long lines at the polls, in part caused by requested absentee ballots not being delivered to voters on time, or problems tabulating record numbers of mail-in ballots. Texas’s GOP and its state attorney general have repeatedly gone to court over the past month to prevent big cities from allowing people to use “fear of COVID-19” as a reason for being able to vote by mail.

And, from the White House, Trump tweets out a constant stream of dark warnings about the dangers of fraudulent votes being cast if vote-by-mail systems are expanded. He is, in this, backed up by a chorus of conservative media and think tank voices, as well as by the Republican National Committee, which is currently suing California and other states to stop their expansion of vote-by-mail systems. So adamant are the Republicans that vote-by-mail hurts their electoral prospects, that the party even seems willing to countenance the bankruptcy of the U.S. Postal Service; since April, the GOP in Congress has been blocking efforts to send needed dollars the postal service’s way to keep it afloat in the wake of the economic shutdowns ordered to slow the spread of coronavirus.

It’s tempting to see the GOP full-court campaign to make it harder for people to vote as something new. It’s not; it’s actually something time-tested and shameful at this point. For at least the past 20 years, variants on this theme have been standard operating procedure.

In 2000, George W. Bush won the election after squeaking through in Florida. Much of the media focused on hanging chads and dimpled ballots. Meanwhile, as I wrote about in my book Conned, three-quarters of a million Florida residents were, by 2000, permanently disenfranchised because of felony convictions; and, at a county level, GOP elections officials in Florida had, in the period prior to the election, launched a particularly aggressive effort to purge voter rolls of those alleged to have felonies, even if the databases they used generated a huge number of false positives.

A similar trend was in evidence throughout the Old South, most of the states of which had, during the last years of the 19th and first years of the 20th centuries, embraced the permanent disenfranchisement of those with felony convictions as a part of their Jim Crow edifice. It was also in evidence in Iowa (and in several of the mountain West states) the constitutions of which, written in the early years of the 20th century, had borrowed heavily from the Jim Crow constitutions of the post-Reconstruction South.

By 2020, nearly 1.5 million Floridians had felony records, and despite the passage of a vote-restoration ballot initiative in 2018, GOP legislators are still doing everything in their power to limit the ability of those with felony records to get their right to vote restored.

More generally, from the Reagan years onward, GOP operatives at the state and national level have gone out of their way to undermine free and fair voting processes: contracting with companies to manufacture voting machines that had no paper back-up; making it ever-harder for students to register to vote; imposing ID requirements that made it more difficult for low-income and residents of color to cast ballots; closing down polling stations in low-income urban neighborhoods, and so on.

During the 2008 election season, I documented a range of these tactics in an article for Mother Jones. They included, in some counties, political operatives challenging the citizenship status of voters with Latinx-sounding names; and, elsewhere, sending out mass mailings to residents of low-income neighborhoods, and then, if the letters were returned as “undeliverable,” using that as evidence a person no longer lived at the address and challenging their voter registration.

Of course, this sordid vote-suppression history isn’t limited to the GOP: The pillars of Jim Crow were long maintained by Democrats in the South, and the worst disenfranchising methods — from the poll tax to the literacy test — were perfected during years in which Democrats controlled statehouses throughout the region.

But, while Democrats historically don’t have even remotely clean hands regarding franchise issues, for the last several decades it has been the GOP that has enthusiastically embraced the tactics of voter suppression. Today, with Trump struggling in his reelection efforts, these ugly campaigns to restrict the franchise have become key parts of the contemporary GOP’s political brand.

In Georgia this past Tuesday, the whole country witnessed a debacle. Sure, some of the chaos was the result of the disruption caused by a pandemic. But the reason things got so bad, so quickly, in urban, disproportionately Black precincts, has at least as much to do with a deliberate strategy of de facto disenfranchisement as it has to do with COVID-19. Those images of voters forced to wait hours in line, to risk exposure to a potentially deadly virus simply in order to cast their ballots, ought to send chills down the spines of everyone concerned with this country’s democratic processes as we approach the November election.