In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively nullified Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, ensuring that several states and local governments with histories of discrimination no longer had to seek federal “preclearance” before they changed their voting laws. As if on cue, many of these states — a majority of which are located in the former Confederacy — pursued swift efforts to pass or implement restrictive voting laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Texas announced a new voter identification law, while Alabama and Mississippi started enforcing ones that used to be outlawed because of preclearance. In a sweeping piece of legislation that was later struck down because it targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” North Carolina passed an ID law of its own, curtailed early voting, eliminated same-day registration, and revoked the authority of county boards to keep polls open longer. All were transparent efforts by Republicans to diminish the electoral power of unfavorable constituencies: black people, Latinos, poor people, young people, and students, most of whom tend to vote Democrat. But according to American Public Media, the only state formerly under preclearance that has adopted all five of the most common voter-suppression tactics is Georgia, which has brazenly implemented voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, purges, cuts in early voting, and polling place closures.
These GOP-led efforts proved to be alive and well this week, as the office of Georgia’s Republican secretary of state announced that over 313,000 voter registrations will be canceled by December 24 — 90 days before the state’s March 24 presidential primary — if their registrants don’t vote in next week’s municipal elections, return a form sent by mail, change their address online, or reregister altogether. According to Georgia Public Broadcasting, 122,000 are set to be canceled simply because their registrants have had “no contact” with election officials for more than three years — meaning they haven’t voted, responded to mailers, or were otherwise inactive electorally for less than the time it takes to complete one full presidential term. The purported reason for this “use it or lose it” approach to voter eligibility is that it helps prevent fraud. The real reason is that Republicans think they have a better chance of winning elections if they winnow the voting pool. The nationwide unpopularity of their agenda suggests their assessment is correct, but until recently, Georgia seemed like one of the last places they’d need to flex this kind of muscle. Then Democrat Stacey Abrams — a black woman and a progressive — came within less than two points of winning the governorship in 2018. Now there’s talk of Georgia being a 2020 battleground, and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger finds himself in an unexpectedly close fight to ensure the survival of a years-long project in the state: keeping the chosen political party of black people out of power.
This long-running project has marked the political activity of both major parties over the years, including during the pre-civil rights era, when those seeking to preserve the south’s racist caste system were more often Democrats. Eugene Talmadge, the state’s two-time Democratic governor, famously had “challenge forms” mailed to white residents in 1946 so they could contest the eligibility of black people who tried to vote, taking advantage of an obscure law that allowed them to do so, according to historian Donald L. Grant. But as Republicans began to oppose civil-rights laws during the 1960s in a concerted effort to attract resentful southern whites, these allegiances shifted, making way for a party whose base remains close to 90 percent white today. Voter suppression has been central to their hold on power across the South and Midwest, marked by GOP-controlled legislatures and secretary of state offices imposing barriers and labyrinthine inconveniences on would-be voters. The most dramatically impacted have been residents for whom day-to-day life was already precarious and marked by disadvantage and uncertainty, whether by virtue of their race, class, or where they live.
Georgia’s previous secretary of state and current governor, Brian Kemp, is a paragon of these efforts. His tenure was marked by purges of unprecedented breadth, guided precinct closures, glitchy voting machines, and registration holds that disproportionately impacted black applicants. The degree to which Raffensperger can effectively carry on his legacy will determine their continued success. Both the 313,000 voters who Raffensperger is threatening to purge from the rolls and the 122,000 facing this prospect due to inactivity far exceed the margin of victory that determined the last election, which was less than 55,000 votes. Both are also vastly less than then-Secretary Kemp’s total purge count between 2010 and 2018, which was 1.4 million, including 534,119 on a single night in July 2017, the largest removal of voters in American history. The time and effort required to ascertain that one has been purged and then correct it may seem minimal, but between precarious or erratic employment and work scheduling, the difficulty of securing child or elder care, and often under-resourced and unreliable public transportation systems absent reliable private alternatives makes doing so an added burden that many people — especially poor people, who in Georgia as elsewhere are disproportionately black — cannot shoulder without undue and sometimes insurmountable effort.
This is by design. And it’s exacerbated by the culture of suppression that has infected law enforcement and the citizenry. The 2018 election saw multiple stories of people being harassed and threatened by police for transporting people to polling sites, including in Jefferson County, where a bus full of rest-home residents was ordered to disembark and turn around, and in Cordele, where seven police cars cornered a local man for driving poor people to their polling sites. In this light, we’re supposed to view Raffensperger’s publication of the names of those facing the next purge as magnanimous — a satisfactory alternative to being wiped from the rolls with minimal warning, as Kemp did before him. The same is true of recent legislation, which extended the period of permissible voter inactivity before expulsion to five years instead of three. And slight improvements seem to be underway. Beginning next year, Georgia will record votes on paper in addition to its widely maligned digital voting machines. But the problem is the measures themselves. The state’s argument that purges maintain election integrity by eliminating people who’ve died or changed residences is supported by little evidence. It was undermined further by an AMP report published earlier this week, which identified more than 100,000 people affected who’d done neither, and tens of thousands more who’d reregistered and were purged anyway. Georgia’s Republican legislators have done nothing to earn the benefit of the doubt. The Kemp era has given way to its own mirror image. GOP efforts to diminish the political power of their opponents’ constituencies remain as transparent as ever. And much like their forebears, black Georgians in 2020 will have to clear unnecessary hurdles simply to exercise their rights.