By George Zornick, HuffPost, October 4, 2021
Republicans in Georgia have been busy this year. Through a bevy of laws and rule changes, both big and small, they are overhauling how people vote — and making it much harder to do so, predominantly for Democratic voters. HuffPost reporter Travis Waldron traveled there and chronicled the stealth effort for his recent feature, “Georgia Is How American Democracy Falls Apart.”
The pace at which Republicans have proposed and enacted voting laws since the 2021 election has been pretty breathtaking, but particularly in Georgia. Why are state Republicans going all out there?
The simple explanation is: Because Democrats won the presidential contest there in November 2020, and then two Senate runoff elections in January 2021. But the key is how Democrats won those races, and who won them: Sen. Raphael Warnock is the first Black senator in Georgia history, and Sen. Jon Ossoff is its first Jewish senator. Georgia has been trending toward purple-state status for a while now, in large part because demographically and geographically it has shifted pretty dramatically toward Democrats over the last decade. Over that same time period, organizers and voting rights advocates like Stacey Abrams aggressively registered, engaged and sought to turn out those voters, and then, in 2020, they took advantage of pandemic-era voting changes (like drop boxes) and, for the first time, Democrats really used Georgia’s mail-in voting program — which Republicans created in 2005 — to their advantage. The recent elections showed that Georgia wasn’t just competitive; it was a place where Democrats could actually win big, important statewide races. Republicans don’t like that, so they’re changing the rules.
Tell us about some of the laws they’ve put in place that Democrats and democracy advocates are concerned about.
The big voting law, SB 202, limits many of the pandemic-inspired voting changes, including the use of drop boxes and mobile voting centers, and it also creates new crimes related to elections, like its ban on providing water to people as they wait in line, or its prohibiting of county election officials from sending absentee ballots to voters unsolicited. Its other big change is to add stricter ID rules to absentee ballots, which analyses have shown will hit Black voters hardest. Its few expansionary provisions apply primarily to rural counties, while its restrictive provisions are all targeted at Atlanta and other metros, and the diverse and more Democratic voters who live in them.
But that’s only part of it: The law also gives the legislature more power over the state election board, and a means to potentially take over elections in counties. In August, the legislature asked the state election board to launch a review of Fulton County, under a process the new law created that could lead to the firing of the county’s election board, and its replacement with a temporary superintendent who could assume most of the board’s powers. The process is long and convoluted, but Democrats fear it could lead to the appointment of a supervisor who shares the GOP’s aim of making it far harder to vote in Atlanta during the 2022 elections, and easier to change the rules for, say, how absentee ballots are counted. And in the worst-case scenario, that supervisor could refuse to certify election results he or she (or the GOP) doesn’t like. It is, as state Sen. Jen Jordan described it to me, potentially “a legal mechanism to do what Trump wanted to do” when he sought to overturn Georgia’s election in 2020. And it’s aimed at the biggest population of Democratic voters in the state.
This is not the first time Georgia has been a battleground for fights about democracy, right?
Not at all. During Reconstruction, Georgia elected 33 Black lawmakers to the state legislature, but white members of the assembly expelled them a few months later. Then, starting in 1870, they began to enact laws to resegregate Georgia and disenfranchise Black voters, and wage terror campaigns against the Black men who’d held elected office. By 1907, there were no more Black members of the legislature, and by 1908, poll taxes and other laws had effectively disenfranchised nearly every Black voter in the state. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the rights of Black Georgians to vote were fully restored and protected.
Those laws, and the atmosphere that led to them, were quite a bit harsher than their current version, but there are key similarities: None of them explicitly barred Black people from voting, but it was obvious who they were meant to keep from voting. The new law, similarly, doesn’t explicitly target Democratic voters or the multiracial coalition that makes up the party’s backbone in Georgia, but it’s clearly aimed at those voters and the state’s most reliably Democratic areas. And even if it won’t have as drastic an effect as the poll tax or other laws that made up Jim Crow, the motivation is similar: Republicans now are changing the rules in the hopes of preventing voters who don’t like Republicans from casting ballots, while also implementing laws that could — again, in the worst-case scenario — potentially help them nullify results they don’t like. It may not be exactly Jim Crow, but it’s not democratic.
When you went to Atlanta, you visited a big march for voting rights. What was the mood, and how are people planning to fight all this?
The mood was mixed: Georgia’s voting rights groups are resolved to fight these changes on their own terms, but also desperate for help from Democrats in Washington, where the Senate still hasn’t figured out a route to pass major voting rights legislation that would counteract many of the changes Georgia Republicans (and Republicans in a dozen-plus other states) have made. The march coincided with the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, which paved the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and it was clearly meant to create a similar atmosphere and urgency around voting rights legislation now. But in Atlanta especially, it was also a way to motivate voters and push them to not allow the GOP strategy to work, and a way to show those Republicans that voters weren’t going to tolerate that strategy. Georgia has municipal elections this year, and voting groups want to use those to figure out how SB 202 will actually work in practice, so they know what to do ahead of 2022 — when Warnock is up for reelection and Georgia has huge gubernatorial and other statewide races — and the presidential contest in 2024. They’re confident they can still protect voters and turn them out, just as they did in November and January. But they also want help from the Senate, because they shouldn’t have to do all that work just to make sure people can exercise their right to vote in a democracy.