2018 midterms: Despite federal court rulings, voter suppression in Georgia still ‘blatant’ and worrisome according to experts

'Stacey Abrams campaign has brought it to light,' one expert says

Mythili Sampathkumar
Atlanta, Georgia
Sunday 04 November 2018 16:36 GMT
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Despite court rulings striking down efforts to throw out ballots of thousands of US citizens in Georgia, the home of the civil rights movement, Emory University professor Dr Carol Anderson said there is still a “blatant” push for minority voter suppression in the state ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

“What looks really simple, really isn't and that is how voter [identification] has basically snaked its tentacles into the American psyche” and become voter suppression, the author of One Person, No Vote, told The Independent.

Democrat Stacey Abrams’ faces off with Republican Brian Kemp in a bid to become the first African-American female governor in the US and that is what has shed light on a problem “allowed to fester because it has been operating in virtual darkness,” Ms Anderson said. She noted “we wouldn’t notice it as much” if another white man or even a white woman had been running against Mr Kemp.

In recent days, federal judges have ruled against efforts like the “exact match” policy for voter registrations in the state which had originally resulted in 50,000 rejected absentee ballots in Gwinnett County just north of Atlanta and around 3,600 new US citizens being barred from voting because “exact match” relied on outdated records from the motor vehicles registration department of the state.

However, Ms Anderson said it is still a troubling trend since these efforts disproportionately target the poor and people of colour and the court rulings have largely been shrugged off by Mr Kemp, his official government office, and his campaign.

Candice Broce, press secretary and staff attorney at the Georgia secretary of state’s office, called it "a minor change to the current system."

Ms Anderson noted the main issue is Republicans veiling these efforts as being “reasonable” - Mr Kemp has repeatedly said on the campaign trail he is simply “enforcing” state law.

Fallon McClure, the Georgia state director for advocacy group Spread the Vote, said “technically” Mr Kemp is not incorrect in his assessment.

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Spread the Vote works not just register voters in the state but also help them obtain proper IDs, targeting populations who frequent shelters and food banks.

She noted that as of 2006, the last time a comprehensive study was done in the state, at least 675,000 people lacked proper government-issued identification.

“The [US] Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and...Georgia was ahead of the curve on requiring identification” at the voting booth, Ms Clure explained to The Independent.

“But there's this idea that just because something is law doesn't necessarily make it right,” she said, adding the “exact match” policy targets those populations who do not follow “traditional white” naming conventions.

In fact, Ms Anderson said “80 per cent” of those affected were African-Americans, Latinx, or Asian “while 10 per cent are white”.

It does not take into account apostrophes, hyphens, outdated records on marriage and divorce, or even just human error for names with non-traditional spellings - what Ms Clure said is an “obvious” aim at African-American and Asian populations.

Beyond the exact match policy, even the process of obtaining a voter registration or any kind of state-issued identification has “built-in racial disparity” according to Ms Anderson, also a professor at Atlanta’s Emory University.

Among the three forms of documentation needed in order to obtain even the state’s specific free voter identification card, a Georgia resident must present “a birth certificate or your passport. If you're working class or your poor a passport is...probably not in your wheelhouse,” Ms Anderson explained.

“If you are poor and born in a rural area you probably don't have a birth certificate because you weren't born in a hospital,” she added.

Ms McClure said this is especially true for the elderly African-American population in the mostly-rural state.

The state does allow for a substitute document from the US Social Security office, however, Spread the Vote has found the process of obtaining the documents to be several weeks long and only applies to those born before 1940.

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Rural Georgia was still incredibly segregated in terms of hospital access through the 1960s Civil Rights movement and even now, Ms McClure said.

The second document required is a Social Security card or a tax form called the W-2, which employers issue employees.

However, having a W-2 requires steady employment, on a non-contract basis and Ms Anderson pointed out the state still has a “great disparity” in employment rates between certain minority and White populations.

Ms McClure also argued the requirement effectively erases the voices of the homeless and those in transition from incarceration back into society.

In Georgia, former felons are allowed to register a vote but it is not a widely publicised fact. Ms McClure explained often what happens with Spread The Vote’s clients are that they are in jail for “quality of life offences” like loitering or trespassing, requiring them to store possessions in unsecured locations.

Often when they return to society all of their possessions are gone, including any identification or papers.

The third document required is proof of a bank account with an address or a utility bill in the individual’s name.

Again, Ms Anderson argued it is a racist policy.

“Only 25 per cent of the African-American population has a bank account,” she explained.

According to the Washington, DC-based Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 135,000 households in the state receive some sort of federal aid to live in public housing, the overwhelming majority of whom are people of colour.

People living in public housing will not have separate utility bills in their names for basics like water, electricity, or gas, and likely would not be able to afford utilities like cable or internet.

She noted though, the issue also applies to multi-generational homes which “African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians are more likely to live in than whites”.

Those types of households often only have one family member’s name on bills.

However, voter suppression is not just limited to identification issues.

Phi Nguyen, the Litigation Director for the Atlanta-based Asian American Advancing Justice said poll worker training was a sticking point in the case of the 3,600 newly-minted US citizens having their voter registrations blocked.

Though a judge required the state to issue a press release announcing the decision voters can cast ballots by showing proof of their new citizenship, “we don't think that poll workers have been sufficiently trained on the policies that the Secretary of State has put in place that allows individuals improperly flagged for non-citizenship to "cure" the issue,” Ms Nguyen told The Independent.

The worry now extends to the “exact match” court decision.

Poll workers may not realise “exact match only applies to identity not residency,” Ms McClure said, noting there is a danger of some voters already turned away or possibly being denied a ballot if the address listed on their ID card does not match what is listed on voter rolls for that particular district.

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There is also the matter of the location of polling places, rooted in the systemic and historic racism of the American South according to Ms Anderson.

Mr Kemp, as secretary of state, has shut down 214 polling stations, or 8 per cent of polling places in the state.

What we know from the data...for every 1/10th of a mile that a polling place is moved, black voter turnout goes down by .5%,” Ms Anderson explained, adding civil society groups like the ACLU and NAACP have remained vigilant on such matters.

For instance in Sparta, Georgia, county authorities attempted to move a black neighbourhood’s polling place 17 miles away which would have “wiped out” that entire demographic of voters in the city, Ms Anderson said.

In Macon, Georgia, the board of elections attempted to move a polling place into the sheriff’s department, what could have been a major deterrent for minority populations already worried about their lives at the hands of police Ms Anderson noted.

Lucky for those voters, the efforts were stopped and on 6 November the state will head to the ballot box.

However, one issue still persists: Mr Kemp’s position in the office tasked with monitoring state elections while he is running in one.

Many Democrats including former Georgia governor and US president Jimmy Carter have asked him to resign because, as Ms Anderson put it, “we really do realize democracy is at stake”.

Per state rules, if neither Mr Kemp or Ms Abrams get 50 per cent of the vote there will be a runoff election which is monitored by the secretary of state’s office.

In a letter to Mr Kemp, the 94-year-old cited his vast experience watching elections around the world through the Carter Center, an Atlanta-based human rights organisation: “One of the key requirements for a fair and trusted process is that there be a nonbiased supervision of the electoral process”.

He added he was writing “less as a partisan who has endorsed [Ms] Abrams and more as the former president who's spent the decades since he left the Oval Office monitoring elections around the world”.

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