So far, the seemingly interminable November election has produced disappointing results for Republicans at the top of the ticket in Georgia. Donald Trump seems to have been defeated by Joe Biden, ceding the state’s 16 electoral votes to a Democrat for the first time since 1992. Incumbent senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were each forced into runoff elections in January, having failed to secure more than 50 percent of the vote in their respective races. All three are now alleging that the state’s election administration was historically opaque and marred by fraud; Perdue and Loeffler have issued a joint statement calling on Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to resign. This insufferable pageant is a clear bid to endear them to Trump, whose popularity with the GOP base could determine both candidates’ fates when they face voters again in the New Year. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Trump threatened Perdue and Loeffler with negative tweets unless they made the statement backing his spurious claims.) But it’s also, at least in part, an outcry against a foiled rigging. Georgia’s election apparatus was set up to give Republicans a gusty tailwind during elections. This time, it looks to have failed, and they’ve responded as is typical when this kind of challenge arises: by subverting democracy until they get their desired outcome.
The goal of right-wing voter suppression has always been to insulate its deployers from democratic will, dating back to the post-Reconstruction retrenchment of unbridled white supremacy in southern law and politics. The country got a front-row seat to how this works in Georgia in 2018, when then-secretary of state Brian Kemp ran for governor but refused to recuse himself from overseeing the election. In crucial ways, Kemp had been laying the groundwork for his bid over most of the previous decade. Since his election in 2010, he had winnowed the electorate to his liking the best he could by purging more than a million voters from the rolls, placing holds on 53,000 registration applications of mostly Black would-be voters and overseeing the large-scale shuttering or relocation of hundreds of polling locations statewide. County officials and everyday residents helped him by promoting a culture of fear around voting, underpinned by the threat of frivolous fraud prosecutions. One poll worker, Olivia Pearson, was prosecuted for answering a first-time voter’s question about how to use the on-site voting machine. When these same machines were revealed to be vulnerable to cyberattacks, Kemp responded to offers of federal help by floating conspiracy theories about Washington plotting to take away local control of elections. The upshot was a massive effort to weaken Black voting power in a state where race predicts partisan persuasion more often than not, and where a diversifying citizenry has been progressively narrowing GOP margins of victory. Kemp knew that making voting as complicated and frustrating as possible gave an edge to those who were more likely to vote for him. He reveled in the success of his strategy in his private correspondence and rode it to victory at the polls.
But he still ended up barely beating Stacey Abrams in the tightest governor’s race since 1966, and it was apparent then, as now, that Georgia was more competitive for Democrats running statewide than it had been in nearly two decades. Amid this threat to right-wing primacy, with Kemp in the governor’s mansion and his successor, Raffensperger, administering elections, the eyes of the nation have been on the state’s voting apparatus in 2020. Both reports and my anecdotal experience as a Georgia voter suggest that things have gone more smoothly this time than in 2018. The extraordinarily widespread availability of options like early and mail-in voting seems to have indeed been good for me and my neighbors and bad for Republicans, as they’ve long theorized it would be. Some have resorted to infighting over the implications. Kemp called the outcome a “wake-up call” for the secretary of state’s office, implying that Raffensperger failed by not personally delivering the kind of GOP victory that Kemp had worked for years to guarantee — regardless of popular will. For his part, Trump has committed to seeking out evidence of “irregularities that will prove that [he] won Georgia” and taken much of the GOP electorate along for the ride: A new Politico–Morning Consult survey found that 70 percent of Republicans don’t think the November election was “free and fair,” compared to 35 percent who predicted it wouldn’t be prior to Trump losing. It’s been remarkable to watch: Suddenly, the political faction whose power was attributable in large part to undermining trust in elections among Black people has found its own trust in elections undermined because its own undermining didn’t work.
At the center of this dispute is a bone-deep sense that this wasn’t supposed to happen. Disenfranchisement is for other people, not for Trump’s chosen Americans. Indeed in Georgia, for decades, it has been the intended plight of Black people, who clearly were not supposed to have ballot access sufficient to challenge the political dominance of white reactionaries. This week’s apparent refutation of that assumption has led to nothing short of a mass tantrum on the right and overwhelming insistence among Republicans that they have been cheated out of an outcome that, ironically, their own cheating was meant to secure. Trump’s bumbling yet ongoing attempt at a coup to prolong his White House tenure is not guaranteed to fail, and it’s yet to be seen what its implications are for Georgia. But it is worth noting that the main “irregularity” here is that Republicans didn’t win where they thought they should have. It might be prudent to add that they are willing to lay waste to democracy itself in response, were that not what they’ve already been doing to Black people for many years.