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Voter Suppression and the Unsilenced Voices

Georgia’s efforts to discourage voters had an impact in the state’s Senate runoff. Fairness and justice still won out, but we should be making it easier — not harder — for people to register and vote.

Voters in Decatur, Ga., wait in line on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, to cast early ballots in the U.S. Senate runoff election for the U.S. Senate.
Voters in Decatur, Ga., wait in line on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, to cast early ballots in the U.S. Senate runoff election for the U.S. Senate. A successful lawsuit filed by incumbent Raphael Warnock’s team and others blocked an effort by the state to prohibit early voting on that day. (Khari Sampson/Georgia Public Broadcasting News)
The day following Georgia U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s runoff re-election was an interesting one for me. I was away from my home in Atlanta, enjoying a monthlong sabbatical on Hilton Head Island, S.C. The temperature there peaked at close to 80 degrees, the sun shone brightly, and after dark a full moon rose. Just as the sun was setting, I took a seat to have dinner with a group of liberal Democrats who meet monthly at a local pizza parlor.

The primary question on their minds: How could a candidate as flawed as former football superstar Herschel Walker have ended up getting as many votes as he did — more than 1.7 million — against the gifted incumbent Raphael Warnock?

That is a complicated question to answer, but I believe it had more to do with the suppression of the Black vote than it did with any groundswell of support for Walker. After Walker lost, conservative pundits and Republicans pointed to a relatively high turnout for the runoff, more than 50 percent, and the fact that Warnock had won as evidence that there was no voter suppression.

But I believe Warnock put it best when he said in his victory speech: “Just because people endured long lines that wrapped around buildings some blocks long, just because they endured the rain and the cold and all kinds of tricks in order to vote, doesn’t mean that voter suppression does not exist. It simply means that you, the people, have decided that your voices will not be silenced.”

Georgia’s voter-suppression measures might explain in part the difficulty Democrats had in getting their turnout numbers higher, but they do not explain why Republicans came back out in such large numbers to support a candidate who had high name recognition but little else going for him.

I believe white conservatives turned out for Walker because many of them perceive the Democratic Party to be a “Black party”: Although Walker is African American, he represented to many whites a throwback to a time when Blacks had to be more concerned about the well-being of whites than their own. And in a perverse way, the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner helped affirm for many white conservatives that casting a vote for him showed a lack of racial prejudice on their part.

Then, of course, you had Republicans who were staunch Trump supporters and were well aware that the ex-president had endorsed Walker. And finally, many Republicans, like their Democratic counterparts, adhere to a type of tribalism, a belief that they should support whoever is the party’s nominee regardless of the quality of the candidate.

As much as these might be true, we should not downplay the significance of Warnock’s victory, particularly to African Americans who were the target of the state’s voter-suppression shenanigans. Warnock’s nearly 100,000-vote margin of victory held psychological and spiritual significance for them. They soundly rejected Republican efforts to select a leader for them, the state and the nation who they wanted nothing to do with. The senator’s victory also spoke loudly to those behind voter-suppression efforts in so many states: the Republican-controlled legislatures. It said that the community will not be deterred from voting no matter what obstacles are put in its way.

To illustrate this determination, I don’t have to look beyond my own family. We voted on the first day of early voting, the Saturday following Thanksgiving. We were able to vote on that day only because of a successful lawsuit Warnock’s team and others filed against the state, which had claimed that voting on that weekend was prohibited by law. By noon the line already had stretched out the door into the parking lot. It took us an hour and a half to cast our votes, but we and the hundreds of others in line were determined to vote.

I couldn’t help but reflect on how unusually cruel it was to not allow voters to be offered drinks or food when standing in such a long line. Across the street from the precinct, there was a get-out-the-vote group offering free food and water, but how likely was someone to relinquish their place in line? How much more humane and common sense wouldn’t it have been to allow nonpartisan volunteers to offer refreshments to those stuck in long lines?

Making it hard to vote by mail also places an undue burden on those with mobility problems or who are too sick to leave their homes, as well as those who can’t take off from work. Additionally, some of my friends’ children in college came home to vote to ensure that their votes were properly cast and counted. This added expense was equivalent to a poll tax from the past.
African Americans in Atlanta register to vote in the July 4, 1944, Georgia Democratic primary.
African Americans in Atlanta register to vote in the July 4, 1944, Georgia Democratic primary. Jim Crow-era voter suppression laws in the South included poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures intended to deter Black Americans and other minorities from voting. (Associated Press/Library of Congress)
Nevertheless, I enjoyed standing in line that day, meeting nearby residents we didn’t know and talking about odd subjects from going on an excursion to Ghana to playing pickleball at our neighborhood park. But voter suppression is no joke. Instead of making voting harder, we should make it easier by giving serious consideration to making every voting day a holiday. If not that, then let’s require employers to give workers up to three hours to vote, and longer if they can substantiate that they had to wait in a long line.

Another idea is that since the public pays for sporting venues in the form of tax abatements, tax credits or other incentives, let’s open them up for early and same-day voting. State Farm Arena in Atlanta did this during the 2020 elections. Conveniently located near transit, those 20,000 seats were put to good use — and no one had to stand outside in bad weather.

Further, we need to make registering to vote easier. Citizens should be automatically registered to vote when they obtain or renew their drivers' licenses, as they are in 22 states and the District of Columbia. When they sign up for sanitation and other public services, they should be able to register to vote at the same time. Certainly there will be jurisdictional issues among state, county and city governments that must be worked out, but it is time that they collaborate better and make their networks interoperable to make it easier for things like registering to vote to occur.

Finally, it is time to catch up to the full potential of digital society by solving the security problems that will permit voting over the Internet. If we can submit our income taxes online, why can’t we submit our ballots? If we can sign a contract online, why can’t we vote online?

The better parts of the 20th and 21st centuries have been devoted to advancing democracy. For one election in Georgia, the voices of fairness and justice won out. They overcame undemocratic obstacles placed before them.

Sen. Warnock reminded us in his victory speech that “a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and for our children. Voting is faith put into action.” Amen!

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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