By Guest Columnist ROBERT A. “BOB” HOLMES, emeritus distinguished professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University and former state representative
Georgia’s history of racial discrimination and voter suppression has been well documented by voting rights advocate Laughlin McDonald in his book, published by Cambridge University Press, A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia. Among the many techniques used to eliminate or diminish black political presence and influence in the electoral process were: Poll taxes, literacy tests, white elections, racial gerrymandering, run-off election requirement, closure of voting precincts, purging of voter registration lists and denial of felons’ right to vote.
The two most egregious and undemocratic extant laws are:
- Removal of inactive voters from the state registration list. Between 2012 and 2018, 1.4 million names were cancelled; and
- Convicted felons are denied their voting rights for life. One in seven black males in Georgia cannot vote because of a felony conviction, which might involve a non-violent crime such as bouncing a check for $500 or more. The number of persons affected by this law may be as high as 300,000, the majority of whom are Black and Latinos. (See Tyrone Brooks and Bob Holmes, “Unlock Voting Rights”, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Oct. 13, 2004).=
The 2018 election put Georgia in the national spotlight because such a large number of voters are denied the right to vote. The election received extensive coverage in the media because of these measures, as well many other activities that involve efforts to reject absentee ballots because of minor omissions, such as not including date of birth or signatures were not an exact match when compared to the signature on file.
Many provisional ballots were rejected and judges had to intervene to force election boards to count them. Some polls were opened late; there were insufficient voting machines at several precincts in minority communities; several county election boards mailed out absentee ballots so late that they were not returned until after election day; and many voters had to wait on line for two to three hours and some polls closed as late as 10 p.m. so they could vote.
There was much chaos and confusion, and efforts by former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who was also the Republican candidate for governor, to block counting of absentee and provisional ballots.
Many other issues and problems resulted in the filing several lawsuits by such groups as Common Cause, Coalition for the People’s Agenda, Coalition for Good Governance, the Democratic Party of Georgia and the Georgia Muslim Voter Project in an effort to ensure a fair election and that every vote was counted,
The Georgia gubernatorial election was the most costly one in the history of the state and the polls showed that the race was very close. President Donald Trump came to Georgia to endorse and campaign for the Republican nominee, Kemp, and former President Barack Obama did the same for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate.
It is interesting to note that Kemp’s strategy was very similar to Trump’s 2016 successful campaign. Kemp concentrated on winning the Trump base (white males, rural and exurban conservative Republicans, non-college educated persons and blue collar workers). His platform included: Opposition to Medicaid expansion, support of a religious liberty law, protection of gun rights, stronger anti-abortion laws, more tax cuts, maintaining the voter purge laws, and giving each teacher a $5,000 pay raise.
Abrams, a black female state representative and Democratic Minority Leader in the House, adopted a political strategy that was similar to the one that then-Sen. Obama used when he won the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012. She focused on building a broad based coalition of African Americans, particularly females, suburban white females, independent voters, white educated females, moderate Republicans who were “turned off” by President Trump’s personal behavior and policies.
Abrams platform included Medicaid expansion, strong gun control laws, improving education, tax reform and comprehensive reform of state election and voting laws, particularly ending purges of voter registration lists. Polls taken during the final two months before the Nov. 6 election showed a 2 to 3 percent difference between the candidates. There was a record turnout in the election and Kemp won by a margin of about 50,000 votes.
Neighboring Florida chose by a 60 percent majority vote to end the practice of denying 1.6 million convicted felons of their voting rights and to allow them to register to vote after they have served their prison sentence. Gov.-elect Kemp and incoming Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger were vehemently opposed to any changes in laws that would end purging voter registration lists or allow felons to have voting rights. And Raffensperger supports additional obstacles so that voter fraud can be reduced!
In contrast, his opponent in the 2018 election for secretary of state, former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, said he wanted to make sure that elections are fair, make it easier for voters to participate in elections and end purging of inactive voters from the voter registration list.
Apparently a majority of Georgians who voted in 2018 want our state to retain its reputation for reducing, by as many persons as possible, the number of persons who can vote in elections.
Georgia’s voting and election laws are obviously in need of comprehensive reform, but its obvious that change will depend on the decisions of the courts, which will rule on the pending lawsuits that are before them. It seems likely that given the many suits and the appeals that will be made, many decisions may still be in litigation when the 2020 presidential election will be held.
Note to readers: Bob Holmes is emeritus distinguished professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University, former director of the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy, and a retired member of the Georgia House of Representatives.