Defending voting rights in the state of Georgia is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. When you defeat one threat to voting rights, another one inevitably pops up in its place. Recent actions by state and local lawmakers, including a bill on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk (House Bill 268), show how these attacks on eligible voters just keep on coming.
Ever since the 15th Amendment banned outright disenfranchisement on the basis of race, state and local governments in the South have devised ever more creative ways to marginalize low-income and minority communities by making it harder for them to vote. In the first half of the 20th century, this was accomplished through violence, fraud, poll taxes and white primaries. Since then, these blunt tactics have given way to new and more insidious methods – such as government-issued photo ID laws, gerrymandering and overly restrictive registration requirements.
Last year, a coalition of civil rights groups went to court to challenge Georgia’s “exact match” voter registration system, which has stripped thousands of Georgians of their fundamental right to vote because of minor discrepancies and typos in state databases. In February, the state agreed to a settlement promising to reform “exact match,” but during the legislative session this practice appeared to resurface with H.B. 268, which opens the door for this same unacceptable scheme to be imposed in the future. No eligible voter should be denied access to the polls because of a typo in a state database. Gov. Deal should protect voting rights, uphold the spirit of the legal settlement, and veto H.B. 268.
The “exact match” bill on Gov. Deal’s desk is just one example of how the threats to voting rights in Georgia keep popping up.
In the special election for the Sixth Congressional District, the state tried to cut off the registration deadline for the runoff a full two months earlier than required by the National Voter Registration Act – a move the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights successfully challenged in court.
In Irwin County, the ACLU of Georgia is urging the Board of Elections and Registration to abandon a proposal to remove the only polling place remaining in the African-American majority community of Ocilla – while leaving polling places in two predominantly white areas open.
In Sumter County, the ACLU is challenging proposed changes that would dilute black voting power in school board elections. The changes are expected to lead to a 5-2 majority of white-preferred candidates – even though 48 percent of the voting age population in the county is black. We’re also investigating another local board of education in middle Georgia for using similar methods to diminish the voting strength of African-American voters in that community.
And throughout the state, minority communities continue to be threatened by partisan gerrymandering schemes that weaken their voting power. This year Georgia legislators proposed a bill (House Bill 515) that would have removed minority voters from several legislative districts and skewed the map in favor of white, incumbent politicians. Legislators backed off after testimony from the ACLU of Georgia and others, but it’s clear that a nonpartisan redistricting commission is needed to prevent this kind of map rigging in the future.
The methods for marginalizing the power of African-American communities may have changed over time, but the outcome is the same – making it harder for people of color to cast a ballot. This is wrong. Instead of playing games with our fundamental voting rights, state and local lawmakers should work to ensure elections are free, fair and equally accessible to all. The writer is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.