As more people of color claim political power, efforts to block them will accelerate — unless we act.
By Stacey Abrams
ATLANTA — In the mid-1960s, when my father was a teenager, he was arrested. His crime? Registering black voters in Mississippi. He and my mother had joined the civil rights movement well before they were even old enough to vote themselves.
They braved this dangerous work, which all too often created martyrs of marchers. In doing so, my parents ingrained in their six children a deep and permanent reverence for the franchise. We were taught that the right to vote undergirds all other rights, that free and fair elections are necessary for social progress.
That is why I am determined to end voter suppression and empower all people to participate in our democracy.
True voter access means that every person has the right to register, cast a ballot and have that ballot counted — without undue hardship. Unfortunately, the forces my parents battled 50 years ago continue to stifle democracy.
My home state, Georgia, for example, suffered a vicious blend of electoral malfeasance, misfeasance and mismanagement during my race for governor last fall. But Georgia is not alone.
Local and state officials across the country, emboldened by the Supreme Court effectively neutering the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, are shamelessly weakening voter registration, ballot access and ballot-counting procedures.
These officials slyly mask their assaults through criteria that appear neutral on the surface but nevertheless target race, gender, language and economic status. The “exact match” policy in Georgia, which a federal court deemed unlawful in November because it requires perfect data entry to secure a timely registration, serves as one example of such a policy.
Although “exact match” lacks the explicit racial animus of Jim Crow, its execution nonetheless betrayed its true purpose to disenfranchise voters of color. Georgia’s secretary of state held 53,000 voter registrations hostage under exact match last year, 70 percent of which came from black voters, who made up only around 30 percent of Georgia’s eligible voters.
The state officials behind exact match were well aware, per an earlier lawsuit, that when only a missing hyphen or a typo in a government database can form the basis to withhold the right to vote, people of color will bear the brunt of such trivial mistakes.
A particularly egregious example involved a voter whose last name is “del Rio.” He was affected by the policy merely because the department of motor vehicles office where he registered to vote did not allow spaces in last names. He was “delRio” there. But the voter rolls do allow spaces. No exact match. Voters like Mr. del Rio faced unnecessary hurdles, and poll workers were not trained properly to make sure that voices like his were heard.
Across the country, voter purges employ an easily manipulated “use it or lose it” rule, under which eligible voters who exercised their First Amendment right to abstain from voting in prior elections can be booted off the rolls.
Add to this mix closed or relocated polling places outside the reach of public transit, sometimes as far as 75 miles away, or long lines that force low-income voters to forfeit half a day’s pay, and a modern poll tax is revealed.
State legislatures have continued the trend this year. In Texas, officials are attempting to further criminalize eligible voters for inadvertent errors often caused by language barriers. In Tennessee, a state with notoriously low voter turnout, the legislature approved a bill subjecting third-party groups conducting voter registration drives to onerous requirements under threat of civil and criminal penalty.
In Florida, 1.4 million Floridians with felonies were re-enfranchised with a constitutional amendment last year that passed with 65 percent of the vote — the largest expansion of voting rights in a half-century. But the legislature has contravened the will of the people, once again disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of returning citizens through a bill that imposes an antiquated poll tax on them in the form of court fees.
After voters run gantlets to get on the rolls, they are undermined by the mismanagement of inexact voter databases, ancient and under-resourced machines, lost absentee ballots or by elections officials who refuse to count votes that were properly cast.
On election night 2018, as phones rang with tales of missing machines, provisional ballots allocated by a vague lottery system and regular voters vanishing from the rolls, I made a simple demand: Count every vote.
Over the next 10 days, my campaign logged over 40,000 calls of voter suppression, sent out volunteers to help voters make sure their provisional ballots were counted and quickly filed numerous lawsuits. Amid this chaos, the results of the election were certified. We demonstrated the immensity of the problem, yet opponents to voting rights responded with the specious claim that increased turnout was somehow proof that no suppression had occurred.
That argument is shameful. A record number of black, Latino and Asian-American/Pacific Islander voters turned out in Georgia to support an inclusive agenda, which led to even more of those voters being subjected to voter suppression.
Voters of color endured three-, four- and five-hour lines on Election Day precisely because so many who turned out to vote were confronted with under-resourced precincts and faulty voting machines. Unprecedented turnout led to countless thousands being blocked or turned away.
The state’s top elections official, former Secretary of State Brian Kemp himself — functioning simultaneously as the scorekeeper, referee and contestant in the gubernatorial election — was caught revealing to supporters that he was “concerned” about record absentee ballot requests from voters of color.
In response, I redoubled my commitment to voting rights and started a nonprofit called Fair Fight Action to harness the commitment and urgency of Georgians who reported, by a 52 percent margin, that they believe suppression affected 2018 election outcomes.
This distrust, shared by millions of others nationwide, should alarm every American; democracy should not differ so dramatically across state and, worse, county lines, where hyperlocal suppressive tactics like the proposed closing of most polling places in a majority-black South Georgia county last year can slip under the radar.
That’s why we filed a federal voting rights case three weeks after Election Day, demanding that Georgia’s elections system comply with constitutional obligations and requirements under federal law, including those provisions of the Voting Rights Act that remain in force, and we asked that Georgia be required to pre-clear voting changes again with the Justice Department before taking effect.
We ask for proper and uniform training of poll workers, timely processing of absentee ballots, functioning and secure voting machines, accurate voter registration databases, an end to policies like “exact match” and “use it or lose it,” and many more necessary remedies.
Facing an existential crisis of democracy, Americans cannot resign ourselves to disenfranchisement and dismay. We must find hope in the energy of voters who supported access to health care, economic opportunity and high-quality public education in record numbers.
This is our ethos: Use the ballot box to create the change our communities need and deserve. In Georgia and across our country, voters deserve the right to pick their leaders and set the direction of our nation. And we shall not rest until this democracy is fully realized.