Brian Kemp is Georgia’s governor due to one of the most controversial elections in recent memory. As secretary of state since 2010, he had eight years to winnow the electorate to his liking before November 2018, and did so by purging 1.4 million voters from the rolls, placing thousands of registrations on hold, and overseeing the closure or relocation of nearly half of the state’s precincts and polling sites. The unstated goal — though it was clear to anyone watching similar efforts by Republicans across the South — was to reduce the voting power of unfavorable constituencies: black people, poor people, students, and others. A study from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published on Friday shows just how successful these efforts were. Precinct closures and polling-site relocations in particular — which Kemp did not order, but allegedly encouraged and devised the guidelines for — prevented an estimated 54,000 to 85,000 voters from casting ballots last year, primarily by forcing them to travel much larger distances to vote.
The study — undertaken by an AJC data specialist and vetted by a team of nonpartisan experts — shows that the further away voters lived from their polling sites the less likely they were to cast ballots. The result in 2018 was a 1.2 to 1.8 percent difference in turnout (Stacey Abrams lost the election by 1.4 points — though in order to win she’d have needed more than 82 percent of those lost ballots, an unlikely prospect). But while this shift probably wasn’t enough to change the outcome of this particular election, the potential for closures and relocations to shape narrower races in the future is clear, especially given the racially polarized nature of the electorate. The impact is already being felt disproportionately by black voters, and by extension, the Democrats they support. Hampered to begin with by higher rates of disenfranchisement due to Kemp’s purges, heightened poverty rates, and varying types of involvement with the criminal-legal system, closed precincts or relocated polling sites made black voters 20 percent more likely to miss the 2018 election than their white counterparts.
But they weren’t alone. Between 2012 and 2018, the distance between the average Georgia voter’s home and polling site more than doubled, as 8 percent of the state’s polling sites were shut down and 40 percent of its precincts relocated. Roughly 30 percent of black voters had to cross at least half of their precinct to get to a polling location, as did nearly 20 percent of white ones. Counties in charge of implementing these changes were enticed to pursue them as cost-cutting measures, but their impact on turnout has been a bonus for austere Republicans seeking to stave off the consequences of an electorate that, in Georgia as well as other states, is becoming less white and less-reliably red. The vast majority have occurred since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013 and no longer required these states to get federal preclearance before changing their voting laws. Georgia has been especially aggressive in its efforts to make it harder to vote ever since. According to American Public Media, it’s the only state formerly subjected to preclearance that has implemented all five of the most common voter-suppression tactics currently in use: voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, purges, cuts in early voting, and polling-site closures.
Kemp’s successor as secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, has promised much of the same, albeit in prettier trappings. To its credit, Georgia has made real advances in the voting options it provides of late: People can vote by mail, up to three weeks in advance in person, and in many cases register automatically when they obtain driver’s licenses. But these have been implemented in tandem with harsher crackdowns. Raffensperger has already scheduled more than 313,000 voter registrations to be canceled on Christmas Eve — 90 days before the next election — if their registrants didn’t cast ballots in last month’s municipal elections. They’ll be spared if they return a form sent by mail from the secretary of state’s office, change their address online, or reregister altogether. But more than a third are slated to be canceled simply because they haven’t had contact with election officials for three years, meaning they haven’t voted or responded to mailers.
This “use it or lose it” approach to voting is purportedly an effort to maintain electoral integrity and encourage regular participation. But in practice, it’s just added to the web of inconveniences and confusion that’s made elections in Georgia a subject of nationwide criticism. It’s also created an environment of antagonism where local officials are more empowered to challenge people’s right to vote. Black people once again have been the most consistent targets. A Jefferson County clerk ordered a busload of black senior citizens to disembark a vehicle that was transporting them to an early-polling site last year. Shortly before the 2018 election, the The New Yorker published a piece about a black man in Cordele who was repeatedly harassed by police while driving poor residents to the polls in the majority-black town.
It’s not hard to see these incidents as direct results of a confluence of anti-democratic practices: The GOP’s war on the false specter of voter fraud paired with its insistence, in Georgia especially, on placing polling sites farther and farther away from the people who need them but often lack the means to reach them by car. Nor has Georgia done much to boost confidence in its alternative voting options: Most recently, federal offers to help with local election security in light of the state’s notoriously glitchy and very hackable digital voting machines were met with hostility from Kemp, who dismissed the offers as a big-government conspiracy to undermine local sovereignty. But even as Republican officials rage against perceived efforts by Washington, the Democrats, and undocumented immigrants to undermine the legitimacy of Georgia’s elections, the reality is that they’re already doing a fine job of it themselves. AJC’s data further demonstrates how effective the state has been at cutting large swathes of its electorate out of the political process. The consequences have been profound. And they’ll reverberate for years to come.