Georgia has long been the center of resistance to advances in voting rights for Blacks and other minorities. “The history of voting rights in Georgia can best be categorized as promises made, promises broken; promises remade, promises broken; promises made and now only partially realized,” said Francys Johnson, president, Georgia NAACP, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the need to amend and renew the Voting Rights Act.
In 1871, in an attempt to undercut the Black political gains offered by Reconstruction, Georgia became the first state to enact a poll tax. Almost 150 years later, civil rights activists said, Georgia again took the lead in introducing a modern-day “poll tax,” – a voter identification law that is one of the strictest in the nation and which could have served as a catalyst for the spate of voter ID laws that have spawned across the nation in recent years.
“Some of the major voting rights litigation in the past 20 years have come from this state,” said Jerry Wilson, a Georgia-based attorney with the Southern Coalition for Justice. And, he added, as one of the states that has to get federal preclearance before making voting changes as required by Section 5 of the VRA, Georgia “has had numerous Section 5 objections over the years.”
Prior to 2006, when Georgia’s law was enacted, no state ever required a voter to produce a government-issued photo ID as a condition to voting. Under the new law, however, eligible voters would have to present a driver’s license, state ID card, tribal ID card, United States passport, federal or state employee ID card, military ID card, or a Voter ID card issued by the voter’s county registrar’s office to cast a ballot. And, if a voter lacked the proper documents on Election Day, they could cast a provisional ballot that would only be counted if the voter presented an acceptable ID to the county registrar’s office within three days.
The law’s requirements, civil rights activists say, places a disproportionate financial burden – or poll tax – on minorities, the poor, the elderly, and students and increases their chances of being disenfranchised.
State legislators one-upped themselves in 2008 by passing a law requiring new would-be voters to prove their U.S. citizenship before they could be added to the rolls. And, similar efforts continue. “While we’ve made great efforts we have a long way to go,” said Johnson of the advancement of civil rights in the Peach State. He added, “Voter suppression is on the agenda during every legislative session and these efforts diminish the ability of old people, other young people and people of color to participate in the search for the common good.”
One of the more egregious changes, activists say, is the diminishing of early voting—one of the tools that has boosted African-American voting participation, many experts agree.
“Our legislature rolled back early voting from 40 to 21 days. Then during the recent legislative session, legislators tried to cut back early voting from 21 days to six days and they said this was in an effort to save $3,400,” Johnson told the AFRO. “Given that we presently spend over $45,000 a week to station a soldier in Afghanistan to fight for freedom abroad, spending $3,400 to ensure that working Americans can participate in the search for the common good seems like a worthy investments.
According to Wilson, voters have also complained about constant changes in polling places and consolidation – or elimination – of polling places without notice. In the city of Athens, for example, there was a move to halve the number of polling places by replacing them with two early voting centers. The move would have meant that some voters had to travel about three hours round trip. “That is untenable for working Americans,” Johnson said.
Even worse, the early voting places would have been located in police stations. “In some communities the police represents the people who protect and serve. In places of color, the police have been viewed as tools of intimidation,” the NAACP leader said. “So it would have had a chilling effect and would have discouraged people from participating – and they (officials) knew that.”
Voter suppression efforts have gained new life in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision in June 2013, which negated Section 4, stymieing Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, advocates said. “Shelby has given a green light to those retrogressive forces to go back to business as usual,” said Johnson, who testified before a congressional committee on the impact of the court’s decision and the need to amend the VRA. “All across Georgia we’re seeing policies that would have been blocked pre-Shelby, they’ve been put back on the table and are going full speed ahead.”
Fulton County, Ga., offers a perfect example, Wilson added. In the 2012 elections, he said, the county’s delegation to the Legislature changed, becoming more White and Republican. One of the first bills they introduced was a plan to restructure the county government.
The plan to reorganize the voting districts structure was submitted to the Department of Justice for review under Section 5 of the VRA. But, the Shelby ruling came down before a decision was made and officials quickly put the new structure into effect.
The change, Wilson said, achieved its goal of weakening African-American representation on the Commission. For example, the redistricting plan pitted two of the stronger incumbent Black commissioners against each other in the elections.
If Section 5 were still in effect, the plan would have likely been overturned, Wilson said. “We don’t have the oversight from Section 5 so jurisdictions are able to do things unilaterally,” said the longtime civil rights attorney.
And with expensive litigation as the only recourse, he added, advocacy groups are stretched thin. “We are not so organized that we can keep up with all the changes in 159 counties,” he said. “So the challenge is educating individuals so they know what to look for and they can then reach out to advocates who can work the system to address only the most egregious of those harmful changes.”