Photos of would-be Georgia voters standing and, in some cases, sitting in long lines after 11 p.m. to cast their ballots in the state's Tuesday primary encapsulated what rights groups and lawmakers decried as a disastrous day for democracy and an entirely predictable result of years of deliberate voter suppression efforts by Republican lawmakers and the U.S. Supreme Court.
They also warned that the myriad issues that plagued Georgia's primary — malfunctioning new voting machines, an insufficient number of paper ballots, a paucity of poll workers, and polling places opening late — are a harbinger of what’s to come in November. They mirror problems that threw Georgia’s 2018 midterm contests into chaos, sparking calls for better preparation and stronger protections against disenfranchisement — calls that apparently fell on deaf Republican ears.
And this year, the coronavirus pandemic added yet another layer of hurdles and provided Republicans with additional opportunities to limit ballot access.
A troubled history
“The Voting Rights Act is considered one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history” according to history.com. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, it gave the federal government some oversight of elections in several places, mostly former Confederate states.
But in 2013, Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices, who held a 5-4 majority over justices appointed by Democrats, gutted the law, saying that oversight was no longer necessary.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
Republican-led states lost no time in enacting new rules targeted at suppressing demographic groups that tended to vote Democratic, especially African Americans. Texas, for example, quickly enacted a voter identification law. Other states began redrawing political maps to dilute the black vote. Georgia is among many states that have purged people from voting rolls for missing elections and shutting down polling places.
As writer Ari Berman of Mother Jones noted late Tuesday, Georgia, which is poised to play a major role in the 2020 presidential election in November, "closed 214 polling places after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. "There were 80 fewer polling places for the June primary in metro Atlanta, where a majority of black voters live," Berman tweeted.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leaders Mitch McConnell is blocking legislation passed by House Dems to restore the Voting Rights Act,” Berman emphasized.
Georgia’s voter registration deadline, one of the nation’s strictest, turns back voters who fail to register at least 29 days before an election. According to American Public Media, that alone kept 87,000 people from voting in 2018 due to late registration.
Long lines, bad machines
"The ACLU warned that insufficient resources were allocated for polling places, machines, in-person election staff, and staff to process absentee ballots and that this would result in the disenfranchisement of voters in 2020," Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said in a statement. "It gives us no pleasure to be proven right."
"Whether it is incompetence or intentional voter suppression," Young added, "the result is the same —Georgians denied their rights as citizens in this democracy."
"This is by design, and it's their test run for November,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York. “
Republicans don't want vote by mail because it chips away at their ability to do exactly this: target and disenfranchise black voters and people of color. … These scenes are specifically happening in black communities, not white ones."
Rep.-Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, echoed OcasioCortez. "This is no accident," Jayapal said. "Black and brown people have been kept out of our elections — 100 on purpose and by design. We must end racist voter suppression efforts, restore, and expand voting rights, and build a democracy that ensures every voice is heard.".”
A myriad of barriers to the ballot box
published drone footage showing hundreds of people waiting in line to vote at one site in Georgia yesterday. The lines were so long, judges extended voting hours at polls in at least 20 counties — including in areas with large African American communities. Reporters from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution posted videos of voters complaining about the long lines.
Eighty-year-old Anita Heard arrived at her polling place at 6:00 a.m. Tuesday morning in an effort to get ahead of the rush. Hours later, after standing outside in rain and stifling heat, she said voter suppression is another example of the systemic racism that cost George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor their lives.
“This is ridiculous. In the United States of America, this time, people can’t vote,” she told Democracy Now!.
“People are killing each other and can’t get along. I don’t have to like you, but I respect you as a human being. What is going on? And now we get here. People have been — look at these people. We’ve been waiting. We’ve been waiting since 6:00 this morning. Six o’clock. If you go around this building, you’ll see people waiting in line. This is unfair.”
Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who ignored repeated warnings that the state's new voting system would not be ready by 2020, was quick to point fingers at individual counties — particularly DeKalb and Fulton, which both have large black populations — for the voting problems, vowing in a statement to launch an investigation to "determine what these counties need to do to resolve these issues before November's election."
Michael Thurmond, chief executive officer of DeKalb County, fired back. "It is the Secretary of State's responsibility to train, prepare, and equip election staff throughout the state to ensure fair and equal access to the ballot box."
Democrats in Georgia, like those in many other states, including Wisconsin, have only five months to address all the barriers designed to disenfranchise voters during the upcoming general election.
“If this is a preview of November, then we’re in trouble,” summed up DeKalb County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson.