Brian Kemp Election Day party setup.
Photo: Kevin C. Cox
Though Stacey Abrams has yet to concede, and the race has not been called by most election observers, Brian Kemp is likely Georgia’s governor-elect, defeating Abrams in a race that would have sent the first black woman governor in U.S. history to the state house. A sobering exchange at a polling location in Atlanta’s Collier Heights neighborhood on Tuesday morning captured some of the day’s many frustrations. “They base the number of [voting] machines they send [to precincts] on turnout from the last election,” a poll worker told a group of 50 exasperated would-be voters, many of whom had been waiting in line for more than an hour. It was pouring rain outside. Everyone at the precinct, the Berean Seventh-Day Adventist Church, was black, and only four of Georgia’s notoriously glitchy digital-voting machines had been provided for them to cast ballots. In a wry rebuke to the poll worker’s suggestion that voters had earned this low number of machines due to their lack of past engagement, one woman snapped back, “Well, look who we had to vote for before.”
Stacey Abrams gave black and progressive Georgians a compelling reason to show up this election. In addition to her potential to make history as the third black governor to win an election since Reconstruction and first-ever black woman governor, Abrams’s platform foregrounded expanded health-care access, tighter gun control regulations, and an embrace of green energy — a stark contrast to her opponent, who casually pointed a rifle at a child in a campaign ad and opposes Medicaid expansion. But their efforts were thwarted by a stubbornly conservative white electorate, and perhaps the most flagrant campaign of voter suppression in the country this cycle. Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state and steward of its elections, refused to recuse himself from overseeing his own race, a clear conflict of interest. He has purged 1.4 million voters from the rolls since he took office in 2010, and declined to update the state’s faulty voting machines, which have been known to change people’s votes unprompted, and which several security probes have demonstrated are vulnerable to cyberattacks. “Kemp is fighting to protect the integrity of our elections,” Ryan Mahoney, Kemp’s campaign spokesperson, insisted to the Associated Press in October, contrary to evidence.
It is hard to say at this stage precisely how large a role voter suppression played in Kemp’s likely win. On its surface, his victory would suggest that Tuesday’s results are more of the same for a state that has not had a Democratic governor since 2003. But suppression means that streak is ill-gotten. Georgia is solidly red in much the same way it was solidly Jim Crow 60 years ago. The partisan makeup of its elected officials may indeed reflect the leanings its population. But the breadth of their support is distorted by how difficult it is for so many to vote in the first place.
Tuesday was marred by such difficulties. In largely black areas especially, lines to vote stretched for hours. Only three machines were sent initially to the precinct at Atlanta’s Pittman Park Recreation Center, causing waits so long that Reverend Jesse Jackson showed up to implore people not to leave, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Voters waited for hours to cast ballots at the Helene S. Mills Senior Multipurpose Facility polling location in Atlanta due to a “power cord issue.” At Anderson-Livsey Elementary School in Snellville, machines ran out of power after 45 minutes because poll workers had not plugged them in, forcing them to run on batteries until they died. And at Anniston Elementary School, about four miles away, some voters waited more than four hours to vote because machines were not working. Fulton and Gwinnett counties — where all four precincts were located — are the state’s two most populous.
The cumulative result of such inconveniences is widespread discouragement from voting. Every black voter who saw a hours-long line and walked away was a victory for Republicans. None did so at the Atlanta precinct that I saw, and others elsewhere expressed their resolve to not give up no matter what, according to reports. But the culture Kemp has advanced over the past eight years, whereby black votes are outsizedly subject to such roadblocks, or treated as suspect or open to challenge, look to only grow more entrenched with his victory on Tuesday.
As I have written before, Kemp’s suppression efforts have already infected Georgia’s citizenry, prompting everyday residents to phone the police and other local officials on black voters and voting organizers they view as suspicious. The Jim Crow parallels are hard to ignore. When a ruling political party and a state’s citizenry are so strongly aligned in such efforts, the result is a kind of suppressive vigilantism upheld by government sanction. That Georgia conservatives voted to prolong and fortify Kemp’s reign is perhaps an intractable result of the state’s rightward — and white — tilt, for the time being. But they owe their margin of victory to a hamstrung black vote, a subversion of democracy that sours their win but will only fortify their power over time.