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  • Schuyler Beltrami

Georgia Passes Most Restrictive Voter Laws in the Country

This past week, the US state of Georgia passed some of the most restrictive voter laws in the country, a move which has garnered much criticism around the country. The moves are seen as being a way to limit accessibility to voting booths, especially for minority voters.

Georgia Gov. Kemp signs the new voting law. Photo:

Last week, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (R) signed into law sweeping measures to restrict voter access to ballot boxes across the battleground state of Georgia. As he signed the law flanked by fellow Republican lawmakers and in front of TV cameras, Georgia State Congresswoman Park Cannon representing the 58th State District, which is mostly comprised in Atlanta, the largest city in the state, was arrested by state troopers for “preventing Assembly proceedings” outside of the Governor’s office. For many this situation symbolized the struggle between the Republican Governor and Republican-led State Congress, and Georgia’s mostly Democratic minority voters. To understand this importance of this issue, a bit of a history lesson is needed.

Voter suppression targeting minority voters is nothing new in America’s history. From the earliest days of the Republic, voting rights have been at varying times tightened and loosened, either to enfranchise or disenfranchise a particular group of people from taking part in the democratic process. Although Black Americans officially earned the right to vote with the 15th Amendment in the aftermath of the Civil War, roadblocks have been continuously put up in order to limit the effectiveness of Black voices in voting. From poll taxes to literacy tests, state governments (mostly in the South, but not exclusive to this region) have tried to make it harder for non-white voters to have their voice heard in government.

It has long been a key point of Democratic lawmakers to not only expand the voting base in the United States (including lowering the voting age to 18), but to get rid of as many obstacles as possible which would either make voting harder or deter people from going to the voting booth. This has been countered by Republican lawmakers who, in the name of “securing elections”, have tried to enact stricter voting laws. These stricter voting laws have included requiring more forms of identification or limiting which forms of identification are acceptable when registering to vote. These attempts have led critics to argue that Republicans, who struggle to gather votes with most minority groups, are trying to make it harder for minorities to vote, as many of these laws disproportionately affect minority voters. Republicans meanwhile have countered that these laws are necessary to ensure that only those voters who are legally able to vote, do actually vote.

The laws passed this week in Georgia go even further than those in the past, with the most draconian feature of the laws making it a crime in the state to offer food or water to voters waiting in line to vote. Other important parts of the law include limiting the amount of dropboxes used for mail-in ballots, relinquishing the power of the Secretary of State to overview elections (a point of contention within the Republican party after the 2020 Presidential election was the reluctance of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to help then-President Donald Trump to “find votes” in order to overturn the results in Georgia), shortening the period for absentee voting and restricting which forms of ID can be used for absentee voting. One of the few provisions seen as positive by Democratic opponents to the law, is increasing the number of days set aside for early voting in elections.

The second key part of this situation is the importance of Georgia to both parties in national elections. For decades Georgia, like the entirety of the Deep South, was a Republican stronghold, with Republican candidates for President and Congress always showing a good performance in the state. But, since the 2008 election, things have been slowly changing in Georgia. As the other states in the Deep South stayed as consistent Republican states (and some, like Florida, flipping from a Democratic state to a Republican state), Georgia began to go from deep red to purple. The main reason for this was rapidly changing demographics, especially in and around the city of Atlanta. The city of Atlanta, as an urban metropolis with a high minority population was one of the few areas of the state where Democrats could count on any support. But soon the demographics of the suburbs around Atlanta became increasingly less white and exploded in overall population. Some counties in the Atlanta metropolitan area which voted with a margin of 70-30 for Republicans, were now suddenly close to being ties. In 2016, Democrats finally began to imagine a scenario where Georgia might be able to turn blue on the map and flip from a Republican stronghold to a Democratic surprise win. But as Election Night 2016 rolled on and it became increasingly clear the Hillary Clinton would lose even solidly Democratic states like Michigan, the hope for a Blue Georgia went away quickly. For Democrats though, not all was lost on that night in 2016, even if they did not realize it then. Simultaneous to the Presidential election, the Georgia Gubernatorial election for Governor was also happening, and this race was much closer than the Presidential election in the state. The race pitted Republican candidate Brian Kemp, who was then Secretary of State of Georgia against Democrat Stacey Abrams. As the first African American female to run for Governor of Georgia, Ms. Abrams was able to gather a wide coalition of voters to her side, as many liberals, left-leaning independents and minorities came out in support of her campaign. Unfortunately for her supporters, not even this coalition was enough to beat a Republican in Georgia, and Mr. Kemp came away as the victor. The election, however, was not without controversy. As Secretary of State, Mr. Kemp was in control of not only the election processes, but also the way that votes were counted in the state (this will now be changed with the newly introduced law, with the elections instead being overseen by a “nonpartisan official” selected by the Republican-controlled State Congress). Although there was no direct evidence of vote tampering and Ms. Abrams and her campaign accepted the results of the election, many Democrats around the Peach State felt that she was robbed of a free and fair election. Instead of retiring from politics, which many defeated politicians may have done in this situation, Ms. Abrams vowed to fight for fairer elections in the state and to increase the number of voters in the state. In the interim period between the 2016 and 2020 Presidential elections, she organized voter registration drives to register many new voters in the state, told new and previously registered voters’ vital information on how to vote, how to arrive at their approved polling place and their rights as a Georgia voter. With these efforts, the number of registered voters in the state of Georgia increased dramatically, especially amongst African American voters in the suburbs of Atlanta. As polling began for the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, many swing states polled favorably for Democrats, most notably Georgia, which was viewed by many media outlets as being a dead heat with support for both former President Trump and then-Vice President Biden split nearly 50/50 in the state. The final results from Election Night proved what many outlets were saying: the race was essentially tied. After three days of excruciatingly slow vote counting in Georgia, then-Vice President Biden was declared the winner by less than 12.000 votes, or less than 0,5%. The map of how the counties in Georgia voted is graphic evidence of the shifting demographics and Ms. Abrams’ hard work in practice, as nearly every suburban county around Atlanta voted for Mr. Biden. As these counties had grown rapidly in population, their numbers were enough to counter the overwhelming support for Mr. Trump in rural counties. Also on the night of the Presidential Election were two elections for both Senators from Georgia. With neither candidate of either party earning over 50%, a runoff was declared in both elections. Once again, the Democratic momentum in Georgia could not be stopped, and both incumbent Republican senators lost their seats to Democratic challengers, thus giving the Democrats a majority in both Houses of Congress in Washington DC.

Viewing all of this closely was Governor Kemp (who will be up for reelection in 2022) and the Republican controlled State Congress of Georgia. Eager to avoid a repeat of 2020 and ensure Republican victories in the future, Republicans in Georgia passed voter laws which many see as meant to purposely inhibit the ability of minority voters to vote. Republicans and Governor Kemp counter by saying that these laws are simply there in order to ensure the safety and security of elections and protect their integrity. Many Democrats in the state, echoing what happened in 2016, are optimistic for the future, saying that these repressive voter laws will only add fuel to the fire and lead even more Democratic voters to vote in upcoming elections. With the enaction of these voter laws, many people and lawmakers around the country have voiced their opposition or support of them, mostly falling along party lines. But there is one part of the American landscape which has stayed surprisingly silent on this issue: Georgia-based corporations. Atlanta is home to many large corporations, including Delta Airlines, Home Depot and Coca-Cola. Although many of these companies have shown support for equal rights and human rights issues in the past, they have stayed silent on the new laws passed in Georgia. Their silence has been seen as passive agreement or indifference by many, and they have been pressured to provide more than just a PR statement about what many see as an abuse of voting rights. Although these companies as have yet been silent about any sort of concrete, proactive actions they will take in response to the passing of these laws, many people understand the impact that a large company can have on local politics. Enacting an economic punishment from a company which employs thousands of people and contributes millions into the local economy can be more persuasive that any vote in the battle for voting rights. For many opponents of these new voting laws in Georgia, this is exactly that kind of response they would like to see from these companies, although many experts warn that most large companies would not risk their own economic exposure to make a point and with Georgia, a state with relatively low taxes, providing a hospitable business environment, these corporations may keep their responses to a minimum.

As Georgia becomes the most “purple” state in the country and every single voter becomes important to both parties, it will be interesting to see how these laws will affect election outcomes in the state, as one would expect, as demographic shifts seem to not be slowing down, that Democrats would hold the advantage in the state. Perhaps, as we saw in 2020, the most important factor in Georgia elections will not be the candidates, voter laws, Fortune 500 companies or demographics, but instead the enthusiasm of Democratic voters throughout Georgia, spearheaded unofficially by Stacey Abrams herself.

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