Georgia and the Fight to Vote

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

October 15, 2018

The blatant effort in Georgia to disenfranchise people of color is now being challenged in court, as it should be.

The Campaign Legal Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta filed suit on Friday on behalf of six civil rights groups that contend that the enforcement of Georgia’s “exact match” law violates the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, and the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is running for governor on the Republican ticket, has been using a hyper-aggressive interpretation of the state’s “exact match” law to suspend tens of thousands of Georgia citizens’ voter registration applications.

“Under this ‘exact match’ protocol, the transposition of a single letter or number, deletion or addition of a hyphen or apostrophe, the accidental entry of an extra character or space, and the use of a familiar name like ‘Tom’ instead of ‘Thomas’ will cause a no-match result,” the lawsuit states. It also argues that “ the matching protocol itself is not a model of strict accuracy and is prone to erroneous, inconsistent results that are often not the fault of the applicant.”

The lawsuit stresses that this effort “has led to a disproportionately high rate of suspensions for people of color. A preliminary review of data produced by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office on July 4, 2018, indicates that approximately 51,111 voter registration applicants were in ‘pending’ status for reasons related to the “exact match” protocol… Approximately 80.15% of those pending applications were submitted by African-American, Latino and Asian-American applicants.”

Kemp’s motivation for these hold-ups is obvious. Just listen to his own words: “The Democrats are working hard. There have been these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines. If they can do that , they can win these elections in November,” he told a Republican audience in July, according to an excellent report by Cameron Joseph at TalkingPointsMemo.

Kemp has also encouraged county clerks to close down some of their polling places. As Joseph notes, citing a study by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “8 percent of all polling places in Georgia” have been shut down. “They’ve been disproportionately in rural, poorer, and blacker counties.”

What’s happening in Georgia is just a snapshot of a nationwide effort by Republicans to deny people of color the right to vote.

Just in the last two years, nine states have passed laws that restrict the right to vote, according to the Brennan Center.

In North Dakota, new Voter ID laws are making it much more difficult for Native Americans to vote, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity. “North Dakota’s voter ID laws require voters to provide forms of identification that many Native Americans voters do not have and cannot obtain,” says Matthew Campbell, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund.

Here in Wisconsin, the legislature in 2011 passed one of the most onerous Voter ID laws in the country, and Republican state senators (including Leah Vukmir, who is running against Tammy Baldwin for the U.S. Senate) were reportedly “giddy ” that it was going to disenfranchise young people and minorities, according to the chief of staff of another Republican state senator.

These not-so-subtle racist efforts at disenfranchisement are an echo of the Jim Crow laws, as spelled out in Carol Anderson’s One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy, or in Michael Waldman’s The Fight to Vote, or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, or Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.

Back in 1901, when Alabama rewrote its constitution , John Knox, who presided over the constitutional convention, said the goal of the gathering was “to establish white supremacy in this State…We must establish it by law--not by force or fraud.” The way they established it by law was expanding the list of those disenfranchised.

Virginia in 1902 redrafted its state constitution and incorporated a lifetime ban on voting for former felons, along with a poll tax and a literacy test. Virginia Senator Carter Glass was disgustingly blunt and public about his racist intent. “This plan,” he told the convention, “will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years.” His remark was met with raucous cheers, according to The Fight to Vote. And according to One Person, No Vote, one delegate questioned him about this: “Will it not be done by fraud and discrimination?” And he responded: “By fraud, no. By discrimination, yes. Discrimination! Why, that is precisely what we propose … to discriminate to the very extremity…with a view to the elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally.”

Lawmakers are not as crude today. But the effort to disenfranchise people of color goes on. It has been aided and abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote for the conservative majority in the Shelby County v. Holder case in 2013 that part of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.

The fight for the vote in Georgia and in other states today must be seen in this historical context.

These disenfranchisement laws aren’t destiny, however. If enough people turn out to vote, even the scheming by Brian Kemp and others like him may not prevent the will of the people from prevailing.