Monitor

With Respect to Voting Rights, Georgia Is ‘Jim Crow 2.0’

The state’s precinct closures and relocations prevented tens of thousands of voters from voting on Election Day 2018

On election day Americans vote at the Rothschild Elementary School library, Precinct 116, in Columbus, Georgia on Tuesday November 6, 2018. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

There’s no doubt about it. A comprehensive analysis conducted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and two outside nonpartisan statisticians confirms that Georgia’s 8% of precinct closures and 40% of precinct relocations from 2012 to 2018 prevented some 54,000 to 85,000 voters from making it to their polling places on Election Day 2018. It’s a particularly jarring finding considering that these closures and relocations affected Black (traditionally Democratic) voters the most, and that Governor Brian Kemp bested former Minority Leader Stacey Abrams by only 54,723 votes. Though voting rights advocates have long argued that voter suppression influenced the results, this new, clear, and substantial evidence of disenfranchisement proves that the state has regressed decades in voting rights, so much so, it resembles its pre-civil rights era self.

Modern-day voter suppression in Georgia began well before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder. The state’s voter ID law, one of the nation’s strictest, was codified back in 2005. But the incessant onslaught of recent voter suppression, including the closures of 214 polling locations, has accelerated drastically since Shelby County. Today, of Georgia’s 159 counties, seven counties have only one polling location.

Precinct closures in Georgia involve a sinister methodology. Typically, the Secretary of State Office sends a White election consultant to offer financial incentives which pressure county election boards, in counties with large Black populations, to shutter their doors. Oftentimes, they are successful. (Though an attempt to close seven out of nine locations in Randolph County last year, which garnered significant national attention, failed.)

Today, of Georgia’s 159 counties, seven counties have only one polling location.

Carol Anderson, professor at Emory University and author of the book One Person No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Democracy, has studied the dire effects of polling place closures and relocations across the South. “The demographics are changing so drastically, the only way Georgia can silence that demographic change is by eliminating that demography from the electorate,” she says. “This isn’t about small tweaking. This is about taking a bureaucratic machete.”

Anderson views Georgia’s aggressive voter suppression tactics, including a very recent mass purge of almost 309,000 voters from the rolls, with a historic lens. “This is Jim Crow 2.0,” she says. She compares the removal of convenient voting locations to the 1890 Mississippi Plan, which required Black voters wishing to cast their ballots to present poll tax receipts, and demonstrate that they could read and understand the state constitution. Although today’s voter suppression doesn’t involve the physical violence that occurred in the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, this doesn’t mean voters shouldn’t be equally alarmed. A government can appear to run like a democracy, says Anderson, but it can function like an authoritarian regime. “Voter suppression today is about bureaucratic violence. When you have this quiet bureaucratic policing designed to wipe out tens of thousands of voters — that’s creating a silent civil death.”

The conclusions of the AJC’s analysis stunned Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, who registers voters and encourages them to engage in the political process. “I knew [precinct closings and relocations] were a real barrier, a real obstacle that affected a real number of people,” says Ufot. “I don’t think that I thought it was 80,000. That number is outcome changing. It has an impact. And I’m really upset about it.”

Despite this grim news scenario, Ufot offers some practical suggestions going forward. Voters must make a conscious investment in the leaders, groups, and faith-based organizations that are already deeply committed to the work of voter engagement, she says. She also hopes more voters will become involved in the decision-making process. “We absolutely need to start recruiting young and diverse Georgians to participate as election workers and poll workers,” Ufot says. “Georgia has gotten away with these practices for so long because what has happened has happened in the dark.”

“Although today’s voter suppression doesn’t involve the physical violence that occurred in the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, this doesn’t mean voters shouldn’t be equally alarmed.”

Anderson, an avid newspaper reader, encourages voters to support local journalism. “Local journalism hones in on these local issues in a way the national press simply cannot,” she says. “We wouldn’t know about the impact of these polling place closures if the local press [like the AJC] didn’t do the heavy lifting.”

It will take an enormous movement on the ground, in the courts, in state and federal legislatures, and executive branches, to ensure that the will of Georgians is reflected in the outcome of the 2020 elections. Ultimately, the fate of voting rights in Georgia will rest with the voters. “I’m hoping come 2020 we have a massive wave, that we stay engaged,” says Anderson. “That’s what will make all the crooked people straight.”

Journalist, critic & columnist at ZORA. Essay collection SOUTHBOUND (UGA Press) & debut novel THE PARTED EARTH (Hub City Press), spring ’21. anjalienjeti.com.

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