There is much consternation about the recent voter laws passed in Georgia and being evaluated in other states. Why are people so upset about a simple ID law? Doesn’t it make sense to verify that the person in the booth is authorized to cast the vote? And how is requiring identification racist?
In order to understand the discontent around voting laws, like many acts of policy or protest in America, the policy must be placed in the appropriate context. Before we get into that history, we must first define election fraud. The term as currently being discussed typically refers to people illegally voting multiple times or voting when they are ineligible, something we should more accurately refer to as “voter fraud”. This is contrasted with after-ballot tampering, miscounting, or tactics that prevent people from being able to vote in the first place, which is all conducted by agents of the state and reflected in most of our voting history in America. When we dispute the charges of election fraud currently being leveled by the Republicans who are pushing nationwide for stricter voting laws, we are specifically disputing the question of whether voters are acting illegally and not the states that count the votes.
The story for Black voting in the United States starts at the end of the Civil War with the 14th and 15th Amendments. Having abolished slavery except for prisoners with the 13th, the United States Congress went on to ratify the 14th Amendment, which gave Black people citizenship, and the 15th Amendment, which made preventing voting based on race, color, or former slave status illegal. (It was still illegal for women to vote.) In the South, Black people made up nearly half the population in several states, and so a number of states sent Black legislators to the state houses and to DC.
In Georgia, 33 Black legislators were duly elected in 1868. They were subsequently expelled by white supremacists, with some of them being attacked or killed. The newly formed KKK backed the move with a terror campaign where a number of Black Georgians were killed. This subversion of the legal electoral process led to Georgia being kicked back out of the Union, and it was not readmitted for nearly two years. The Confederate remnant in the Democratic Party managed to re-secure control and engaged in an orchestrated terror campaign similar to what happened in other states in the South to eventually disenfranchise Black voters by the 1890s. The politically dominant Democratic Party even went so far as to have White-only primaries.
Jim Crow kept most Black people out of the voting booth until the 1960s. Poll taxes were in place from 1877 to 1945. All-white primaries were banned in 1946. However, literacy tests and “tests of personal character” were also common, with the passing determined by the voting registrar in the county, nearly guaranteed to be white. Regardless of federal and state laws, local registrars did what they wished, and the state would generally look upon malfeasance with a wink and a nod. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was crafted to target the aggressive voter suppression in the Deep South and affected specific states, and finally allowed Black people to safely vote, at least in urban areas where terror or intimidation tactics could not be as easily applied.
Thanks in part to the Voting Rights Act, the ideological home of Southern conservatism switched over the next 30 years from the Democratic to the Republican Party. In 2005, after Republicans took control of the legislature and the governor’s seat from Democrats, they passed a law reducing the number of valid forms of ID one could vote with and making provisions for no-excuse absentee ballots, with the knowledge that the absentee ballots would skew rural, white, and Republican. Democrats at the time made some of the same arguments Republicans are making now, indicating fear of fraud, though not alleging that fraud had occurred. Republicans continued to win statewide elections for the next 15 years, and there were no suggestions to change the law. While there did not appear to be malfeasance in the counting of the absentee ballots, catering to the demographic they hoped to obtain seemed to work. Along the way, Georgia also chose electronic systems that came under fire for glitches and possible tampering that favored Republicans.
Stacey Abrams, through her efforts with the organization she founded, the New Georgia Project, registered nearly a million voters over 6 years — 200,000 before the 2018 governor’s race, and 800,000 more after. Those voters were disproportionately historically disenfranchised and disengaged Black voters. Despite this, in 2018 she lost the governor’s race to Brian Kemp, who in his capacity as secretary of state presided over the election as well as being a candidate. The election itself was plagued by allegations of miscounts and problems with the equipment. In the end, the voter registration efforts paid off for Democrats as newly engaged voters who skewed Democrat voted in the election, giving Georgia 2 new senators and giving the Democratic presidential candidate the state’s electoral votes.
In the wake of the closely contested 2020 election and runoffs, Republicans asserted foul play and again moved to change the laws. The same absentee ballots that were valid 15 years prior were now allegedly sources of substantial fraud. Despite lack of substantial proof, anecdotal allegations and unfounded claims won much of the day in the public discourse. A Republican-dominated state legislature adjusted the voting laws and made several changes. The most notable changes were:
-The state can now intervene and take over county election boards
-The secretary of state can no longer preside over the state electoral board, replaced instead with a person chosen by the legislature
These changes determine who gets to count votes in the large urban counties in Atlanta where there is a significant enough Black population to sway the statewide result. They also ensure that even if a secretary of state is elected from a different party than the legislature, they will not have sufficient influence to determine how the state sets election policies and rules within the laws drawn. A number of other provisions were put in place, including the infamous food and water provision, requiring copies of ID, and restricting absentee ballot drop-off to poll hours.
Restrictions like limiting drop-off to poll hours are intended to make it harder to vote. Georgia gained notoriety as well for uneven distribution of polling equipment, producing hours-long lines in many predominantly Black districts while other districts breezed voters through. The laws are specifically designed to create more hurdles to voting under the guise of solving a problem with voter fraud that has repeatedly been proven not to exist. (The Heritage Foundation alleges over 1300 instances of voter fraud but they appear to be looking at over 2 decades of data nationwide and do not seem to distinguish between malicious intent and people who made honest mistakes.) But why?
Just as the Voting Rights Act was able to target the South without saying “the South” by looking at the percentage of registered voters due to successful suppression during Jim Crow, these new measures are targeting Black voters without saying “Black voters”. There are a number of ways to validate that a person is authorized to cast a vote. We could make state IDs free, and in this digital age, even make them easy to get via manned mobile stations. We could allow voting on Sunday (the new Georgia law makes that optional for counties to disallow, targeting Black churches’ “Souls to the Polls” efforts). We could mandate that any county polling place with the equipment make complimentary photocopies of ID. None of that is being done.
The economic damage of centuries of enslavement followed by nearly a century of racial terror and disenfranchisement means we see Black people disproportionately represented in jobs that make less money and have less flexibility. Our “essential workers” may not be able to get out of their jobs during election hours. Federal law mandates 2 hours of time off (not necessarily paid) to vote, but in an at will state where you can be fired for any non-protected reason, do you take the chance? Even if you get the time, if you are reliant on public transit, it may be too inconvenient to get to your polling place.
Yes, these hurdles are surmountable. Yes, a sufficiently motivated person can still vote in person, albeit with an hours-long wait time in some areas. However, we should ask ourselves why we are putting up hurdles in the first place if they have been proven to not protect us from anything. When we again lay the list of actions and expected outcomes against a nation that has a long history of racialized policy decisions, the results become problematic, and we’re faced with the choice to either mitigate the racialization or avoid it in the first place by choosing policies that are just and maximize access without compromising security.
Our nation deserves secure elections. And we deserve sufficient access to the tools required to secure them, and sufficient resources to run elections in such a way as to avoid hours-long waits to exercise the fundamental right of a democracy.