“We just celebrated Bloody Sunday, and we’re fighting the same battles,” said Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, likening the legislative changes advancing through the Georgia General Assembly to civil rights-era trickery.
Georgia’s Republicans lost a game of inches in the elections in November and January. Rather than admit to themselves that they were outworked, Republican legislators have instead decided to play with the rules.
Some of the changes are profound. Some seem perfectly petty.
The bill that passed the Georgia Senate on Monday night, SB 241, criminalizes “ballot harvesting” activities like helping people fill out absentee ballot applications. It also requires an applicant to either upload a picture of a photo ID or submit photocopies of an ID. In combination, the two rules create impossible conditions for some voters, Butler said.
“How is a blind person going to upload that form into an email process and send it in?” she asked. “People don’t have copiers in rural Georgia. They don’t always have internet access. They don’t always have email or fax.”
Absentee ballot boxes are apparently too convenient when placed outside, so now they must be indoors and only available during business hours. No more private buses would be able to take early voters to the polls.
Other changes seem simply absurd. Consider the criminalization of line warming, the practice of offering food or drink to people standing in line to vote. It seems something awfully minor. But combine it with substantial reductions to early voting and absentee ballots and the inability for local elections boards to expand polling locations, and suddenly you have long, thirsty lines.
Melody Bray, co-founder of the Georgia 55 Project, saw lines around the block for early voting in the primaries last year. She and some friends eventually banded together to organize relief for line-stranded voters. They partnered with local restaurants like Atlanta’s beloved Dancing Goats Coffee Bar chain, using funds from their partners to pay for the coffee rather than ask for freebies while companies are laying people off. It was grassroots civic participation. If the Senate bill is passed by Georgia’s House and signed into law, it will be illegal.
“Amongst ourselves, we have disparate political views,” she said. “It was hard to be nonpartisan, actually. But we all love Atlanta. … I think that losers can be very bitter about losing, and winners can be very bitter about winning. It would be very hard with data to show that line warming somehow affected Republicans getting voted into office.”
“I think it’s cruel. There’s no purpose other than trying to suppress the vote.”
And yet in elections decided by half a percent, all it takes to win is for one in 200 people — the right people, of course — to choose comfort over democracy.
“This is un-Christian. It’s inhumane,” Butler said. “I think it’s cruel. There’s no purpose other than trying to suppress the vote. They’re hoping that people will get out of line and not vote. People see the viciousness of this.”
Vicious, perhaps, because many Republicans believe this is the last stand. Democrats have spent years fighting to expand voter turnout, and that’s been a major contributor to Georgia tipping blue. The midterms have been cast as an existential contest for control of the state between the probable Democratic nominee for governor, Stacey Abrams, and the survivor of a brutal Republican primary to come between Gov. Brian Kemp and whoever becomes former President Donald Trump’s anointed champion. This week, ousted Sen. Kelly Loeffler launched Greater Georgia, the Republican answer to voter turnout.
“We are at war, fighting to protect our democracy from domestic enemies at this moment,” Abrams told Anderson Cooper, invoking the threat of the January 6 Capitol attack. “Those domestic enemies should be renounced.”
I see no real rationale for the changes aside from protecting statewide officials from defeat by a Democrat. So there’s no virtual fig leaf covering legislators’ immodesty.
“Because of the posture and the timing of this legislation, everyone agrees that no one has seen anything like this,” said Pichaya Poy Winichakul, voting rights staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “What we do know is that they’re making it very difficult to track this legislation. Every operative iteration of this bill has never been made available to the public in time for a hearing and public testimony on that bill. It’s been difficult for us as voting rights activists to track this bill and exponentially more difficult to track for voters.”
SB 241 passed the Senate 29-20 on a party-line vote. It needed 29 to pass; leadership decided to protect the seven most vulnerable seats from having to cast a vote. Now the Senate bill is going to the House, which already passed its own bill implementing voting restrictions a week ago, and then will land on the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
Today, virtually every eligible adult in Georgia is a registered voter, in part because registration is automatic when acquiring state-issued ID. SB 241 would end automatic voter registration.
Even before the pandemic, more than half of voters cast votes early, either in person or with an absentee ballot. In November, about 80 percent of voters cast early votes. But the Senate bill would restrict absentee ballots to people 65 or older or to those who have a physical disability or can show that they’re out of town.
Consider that about 73 percent of Georgians over 65 are white, compared to 54 percent of residents overall. Older white voters traditionally break for Republicans 3 to 1 in Georgia.
Under the Senate bill, Georgia’s secretary of state would cede much of the office’s authority to a state board. It would administer a hotline for anonymous complaints about voter fraud, which it would be obligated to investigate. The secretary would also be unable to enter into a consent decree with the federal government without approval from both chambers of the General Assembly. The sheer cynicism of it: The law essentially predicts that a Democrat will win the seat and prevents that Democrat from cooperating with a Democratic president as long as a gerrymandered state Senate can hold power.
“Souls to the polls” events for Sunday early voting were initially to be eliminated entirely. After an outcry and national attention, the authors amended the bill, allowing that counties can pick one Sunday for early voting. The bill passed the House along party lines last week and will be taken up by the Senate.
The American Civil Liberties Union testified that the proposed laws probably violate both the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. That may be beside the point: It will cost progressives time and money to fight in court. Even if and when organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center prevail in court, their coffers will be lighter. During the civil rights battles of the ’50s and ’60s, legislators pursued similar strategies knowing that they would fail in court. The Voting Rights Act required Southern states with a history of discrimination to submit proposed changes to election laws to the Department of Justice for preclearance review for that very reason: so that they couldn’t continually game the courts.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court held some of the preclearance provisions of the act as unconstitutional. Since then, a parade of laws suppressing voting have marched across the South, from onerous voter ID requirements in Texas — which took five years in court to reverse — to laughably discriminatory disenfranchisement of Black voters in North Carolina. Georgia by and large escaped this campaign, until today.
Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore preclearance to states with a history of discrimination. Georgia came to the Democrats’ rescue, giving them control of the U.S. Senate. The question is whether the Senate will return the favor.