Fighting for the Right to Vote in Georgia

DSA members Greg Ames, Daniel Hanley and Lorraine Fontana arrested at Georgia Secretary of State's office. (Credit: Reid Freeman Jenkins)

By Barbara Joye

On Monday, Oct. 27, eight men and women were arrested when they refused to leave the Georgia Secretary of State’s office until some 40,000 registration applications submitted in three counties are processed and the voters’ names entered on the rolls so they can participate in the mid-term election. A group of about 60 supporters held up signs saying “Let us vote!” in the hallway outside the sit-in. The arrestees -- who included three DSA members -- and their supporters are participants in Moral Monday Georgia (MMGA, see below). Early voting is already underway in Georgia.

The National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights has filed a lawsuit against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp on behalf of Third Sector Development, the national NAACP and the Georgia NAACP, asking for a writ of mandamus, which would order the counties to do their jobs and register the missing names by Nov. 4. The three counties of course have large minority populations and are Democratic strongholds. (Two other counties have been dismissed from the suit since it was filed.)

Kemp has called the suit “frivolous,” claiming that most of those voters are on the rolls and others are on a “pending” list while more information is being sought to correct their applications. He also takes credit for instituting improvements such as online registration, to correct problems reported in previous years. A hearing held Oct. 24 revealed numerous differences in the two sides’ views of the data at issue and the role of Kemp’s office and the counties in the registration process. On Oct. 28 the judge refused to issue the writ, stating, "There has been no failure of a clear legal duty," according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC). “A vote delayed is a vote denied,” said Georgia NAACP President Rev. Francys Johnson at the hearing.

This fall, Georgia became a showcase for Republican voter suppression efforts, when Kemp announced that his office was investigating fraud allegedly perpetrated by the New Georgia Project (NGP), a nonpartisan registration initiative (whose parent group is Third Sector Development) founded by the Georgia House minority leader, which had submitted some 85,000 registration applications. His office claimed to have found 25 forged applications, and later increased the total to 50. Like all those who register voters, NGP is required to turn in all applications it collects, even dubious ones (remember what happened to ACORN?).

Kemp said he initiated the investigation after receiving over 100 complaints from more than a dozen counties, but according to Atlanta Progressive News (APN), a research librarian reported on Daily Kos that after she filed an open records request for documentation of the complaints, she received only one related to actual registration fraud – from a county official who claimed that canvassers were telling people they had to register. Records obtained by the Atlanta’s NBC News affiliate showed only seven such complaints, and only one of them concerned NGP

DSA members join community organizations behind Georgia NAACP President Rev. Francys Johnson at a press conference. (Credit: Reid Freeman Jenkins)

Georgia also has one of the country’s most stringent voter ID laws, and filling out the registration form poses numerous pitfalls; any number of trivial mistakes, such as using the wrong color pen or omitting a zero before a single-digit number of the day or month in one’s date of birth can cause the application to be disqualified. In 2011, the state legislature shortened the early voting period from 45 days to 21.

Voter suppression is nothing new in 21st-century Georgia. Four years ago, citizens of the South Georgia majority-black town of Quitman used an absentee voting campaign to increase black representation from two to four on their seven-member county school board. During the next two years, 12 black people were arrested, charged with illegally helping people to vote, and Governor Deal replaced three of the black school board members, including the board president, a Ph.D. Only one of the 12 cases was finally resolved this year – in the defendant’s favor (one defendant has died in the meantime) – after three trials.

Blacks are now more than 30 percent of active voters in Georgia, with white voters, 58 percent, dipping to under 60 percent for the first time in state history two years ago, according to the AJC. This has surely not escaped the notice of the Republicans, who have enjoyed a dominant position in all branches of state government since the last Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, was defeated in 2002 (incidentally, the first election in which Georgia employed electronic voting machines – made by Diebold). The takeover of the legislature was already underway by then, and many Democrats switched parties, allowing Republicans to gerrymander districts in 2010 to pit Democratic incumbents against each other and to split some Democratic-leaning districts such as the one containing the state university’s main campus.  Obama lost in Georgia in both presidential elections, but currently the two parties are reported to be neck-and-neck for governor and senator.

Kemp was recorded at a Republican event this fall commenting that "Democrats are working hard… 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." Times may be a-changing; the question is whether the change will come soon enough to make a difference during the next several years.

Democratic socialists and all people concerned with defending and expanding democracy in the United States need to pay as much attention to voting rights and how elections are conducted as we do to the candidates for office. Party operatives should not be in charge of districting or elections, for starters.

The voting issues in Georgia are reported by Atlanta Progressive News and have been featured on MSNBC. New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice is an excellent source for information about voting rights, money in politics and election laws in all states. 

Barbara Joye is secretary of Metro Atlanta DSA and a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.

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