Voting rights, racism and Georgia’s next governor

October 31, 2018

Tom Gagné reports on the race for Georgia governor, where voter suppression overseen by the Republican candidate shows the battle for democracy still needs to be fought.

ONE OF the most closely watched governor’s races in November is in Georgia, with a conservative white Republican, Brian Kemp, who has a history of trying to suppress voter turnout, running against a liberal Black Democrat, Stacey Abrams.

Kemp, the state’s current secretary of state, has made a name for himself during this campaign with his notoriously right-wing campaign videos — which feature him standing for the National Anthem, saying “Merry Christmas” in December and “God Bless You” when someone sneezes, and pointing a shotgun at his teenage son while he proclaims his devotion to the Second Amendment.

His campaign message is that Abrams is a “radical,” though her actual platform is similar to many moderate Democrats. The polarized atmosphere in Georgia has energized Kemp’s white conservative base, and he’s hoping to ride that confidence to victory, though Abrams has been far more successful than most Democrats in statewide races.

Because Kemp is secretary of state, he oversees all electoral processes for the state of Georgia — at the very least a conflict of interest in a state where Black voter suppression could tip the balance in his favor.

Georgia Republican Brian Kemp
Georgia Republican Brian Kemp

Despite calls for him to step down as secretary of state in order to restore confidence in the election, Kemp refuses.

Earlier in October, Rolling Stone reported on a leaked audio recording, in which Kemp lamented to campaign donors in the wealthiest district of Atlanta that a larger voter turnout in this election “continues to concern us, especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote.”

ACCUSATIONS of the suppression of the Black vote are familiar in Georgia, of course.

The Voting Rights Act passed during the civil rights era introduced federal oversight in states with a “history of discrimination” — such as those that were part of the former Confederacy. Before these states could enact laws regarding voting, they needed clearance of the U.S. Attorney General or a federal district court in Washington, D.C.

In 2010, two years into the presidency of Barack Obama, lawyers and judges from Alabama’s Shelby County challenged this federal oversight in the name of “changing demographics,” which they argued made federal oversight because of past civil rights violations obsolete.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Shelby County, and thus began the rolling back of voting rights across the region.

The man leading the way in Georgia is none other than Brian Kemp. As secretary of state, he is responsible for a number of new election laws and regulations, including one called the “exact match” law.

Under this law, the information on your voter registration must correspond exactly to the information on your state identification. If there is even a hyphen, comma or single letter missing or misplaced — even if this mistake was the result of human error by officials entering it into the state database — you would be immediately placed on a “pending” list and unable to vote until the discrepancy is fixed.

If you managed to make it to the poll and successfully cast a vote despite a violation of “exact match,” your vote could be discarded. Furthermore, the law makes it the responsibility of voters to know about “exact match,” and so any discrepancy uncovered by state officials can lead to being put on the “pending” list.

Another law made it perfectly legal for the Georgia secretary of state to deregister voters if they missed two successive federal elections. The state has purged as many as 1.4 million voters from the rolls in the last few years.

Kemp’s methods were subjected to national scrutiny earlier this month when the Associated Press reported that 53,000 new voter applications were placed on that pending list — and 70 percent of those applications belonged to Black people.

THE OFFICIAL justification for the “exact match” law is to protect against voter fraud. However, fraud on the scale that Donald Trump or Brian Kemp claims has been proven again and again to be a lie.

Every report on voter fraud indicates that cases are much more rare than the right-wing media pretend. One study by the Brennan Center for Justice shows occurrences are about as common as being killed by lightning. And yet Kemp continues to complain about voter fraud to whip up conservative voters.

His campaign ads on television and in social media paint Abrams as an “extremist” and a “communist,” who wants to bring in millions of undocumented immigrants just to vote for her.

The real story, of course, is different. Last month, a handful of armed white nationalists showed up to intimidate voters at an Abrams campaign event sponsored by Black women military veterans in rural Augusta.

The leader of the racist group, James Stachowiak, regularly instructs people on his YouTube channel to “shoot Black people on sight.” A photo of him posing with Kemp recently surfaced on social media.

This is just a small sample of the right’s racist attacks, whether they come from the top or the racist base — and it’s clear that they’re driven by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric.

Many people understandably fear an unwelcome return to the Jim Crow South’s racist voting laws. In the past several years, 8 percent of polling locations across the state have been closed, largely affecting Black communities.

On the first day of early voting, turnout was unprecedented, and people in several counties waited in line for up to three hours. In Atlanta, an elderly man nearly passed out from heat exhaustion. But he refused medical service from the ambulance that arrived. The reason? He wanted to make sure his vote was cast right then and there.

IN 2013, Stacey Abrams founded the New Georgia Project as a way to reignite voter mobilization and register as many minority voters as possible.

Unfortunately, this initiative doesn’t go nearly far enough in challenging the systematic inequality that beats in the heart of Southern racism.

Since Trump’s election, the state of Georgia has become an ideological battleground, with both parties claiming to be “fighting for the future of the South.”

In 2017, there was national attention on a special congressional election between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. But Ossoff relied on raising large sums of money, often in large donations from outside Georgia’s borders, rather than building a campaign that focused on the needs of lower-income and disenfranchised voters. Though Ossoff outspent Handel, the Republican won.

With all eyes turning once again to Georgia, Stacey Abrams has attempted to shift the Democratic Party to turn its attention to these voters. Yet she has replicated the same establishment fundraising strategy, with only a hat-tip toward the Sanders style of raising small contributions. This gives a sense of the agenda she would pursue if she does defeat Kemp.

No matter who wins the election, the outrage at Kemp’s voter suppression reminds us that the history of the South since Black Reconstruction is the history for the battle of democracy, where many of the fault lines are racial.

The need for a stronger anti-racist movement and a politically energized Black working class — with access to both the streets in protest and ballots in elections — has never been more imperative.

Radicals need to find ways to build political and social movements that expand democracy and democratic rights in the South, with special attention paid to the unique history that this region carries from Jim Crow, through the civil rights movement, and with its reawakening in Black Lives Matter.

We need to demand that resources be devoted to the projects that improve working-class Georgians’ lives, such as public education, public housing and expanded public transportation. We need a political movement to raise up these demands and keep them up.

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