Opposing Voter Suppression — The Battle for Georgia

I am writing this from the airport in Atlanta, where I have spent the past five days doing my best to help make sure that the Georgia Senate runoff elections were fair and that all votes were counted. The experience was both inspiring and chilling, so I am going to jot down some thoughts before the press of business and family in the “real world” re-consumes me.

First off, a disclosure: I believe very strongly that the voting process should be as easy as possible. In college (before the internet ruled our lives), I volunteered for a small organization that was trying to get the local city council to adopt a measure that would study, and, hopefully, implement a process by which voters could cast their ballots by telephone. That’s right: pick up the phone, enter your id, cast your vote, and, presto! You are done. No line, no worrying about signatures, no hassle. Despite our best efforts, and many long hours spent gathering signatures in the frigid Colorado winter, the effort failed. (Its leader, a fellow nicknamed “Evan from Heaven,” then went back to busking on the local pedestrian mall.)

I still hold that belief. I have been troubled lately by the reality that, while one political party is doing everything that it can to make voting easier for people, the other major party seems Hell-bent on suppressing the vote. So I decided to travel to Georgia as part of the “lawyer cavalry” organized by the Georgia Democrats in an attempt to ensure that there were plenty of lawyers on the ground in counties that had experienced issues during the presidential election in November 2020. I arrived on Sunday, January 3, 2021, to a downtown Atlanta that was almost completely empty due to the pandemic.

Modern Voter Suppression is Real. My first day was spent almost entirely in Henry County, about an hour south of Atlanta, dealing with the following situation: Georgia has an “exact match” law, which requires that names on government-issued IDs precisely match the names on the voter rolls. In other words, a misplaced hyphen, or an initial instead of a complete middle name, could block someone from voting.

With respect to absentee ballots, Georgia requires the signature on the outside envelope to match the signature on file with the state. So every absentee ballot that is cast must be checked against the signature on file. If the signature does not match, the vote is suspended until the signature is cured by the voter.

In Henry County, we were told, Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia Secretary of State, had sent notice shortly before the election that the county had not done enough to check the signatures on the absentee ballots. As a result, a few days before the election, the county was scrambling to recheck almost 10,000 ballots, enough to potentially swing the election.

While the county was making every effort to re-verify the signatures in time for them to count, when we arrived at the processing center it was clear that they were far behind. After meeting with Ameika Pitts, the Director of Elections and Voter Registration, we learned that they were processing less than 2000 absentee ballots per day. In other words, there was no way that they would process all of the ballots in time.

Organizers up the food chain from me were deeply concerned about this possibility. I then spent the afternoon meeting with people and working the phones to help coordinate an effort to get non-partisan voters down to Henry County in order to help with the signature verification. The crisis was ultimately averted, but it’s worth asking whether it should ever have happened in the first place. There are many reasons that a signature can change over time, especially for older and younger people. Plus, how many people’s signature at the DMV matches their signature on a letter? Last, is a lay person really qualified to determine whether two signatures match? Probably not.

All of this points to the conclusion that exact match laws are really just a way to make it harder for certain people to vote. (The Georgia NAACP, along with other civil rights groups, have challenged these laws because of their disproportionate impact on racial minorities.) In Henry County, we saw that happening in real time.

Shenanigans in Fulton County. My remaining days were spent mostly at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) in downtown Atlanta. There, in a vast space that had no windows and felt like a nuclear blast shelter, Fulton County was processing the absentee ballots that it had received. The county had divided the processing into different stations where signatures were checked, ballots were opened, and ballots with problems were adjudicated. These stations were behind metal barriers so that the public was not able to interfere with the process.

Lawyer cavalry member Dan Johnson in action.

Each of the two main political parties was allowed to have two people behind the barriers in order to observe the process. Parties had to identify these observers by letters sent to the county.

For some reason, the Republican Party had decided to have around 30 observers present. Some were fine. Others made a show out of staring at the workers who were diligently performing their mundane jobs. We also noticed that, like clockwork, every 15 minutes or so a new pair of Republican observers would request a “tour” of the facility from the woman who was in charge of the vote processing operation. She, with saint-like patience, would stop the important work that she was doing in order to oblige them. The Democratic observers would then follow along to make sure that the Republicans did not interrupt any of the people processing votes.

At the end of the day on January 6, 2021, as the rioters were swarming the US Capitol, the entire facility in Fulton County had to be shut down, and police officers walked some people to their cars. Apparently there was a similar demonstration in Georgia, and the powers that be were taking no chances. The voting continued the next day, and eventually all votes were counted.

Stacey Abrams is a true hero. The more I learn about Ms. Abrams, the more impressed I am. She was brave enough to take on the challenge of rebuilding the Georgia Democratic Party after it had not won a statewide office in 14 years, a Senate seat in 20 years, and the presidential vote in 28 years. And she did so by focusing on real issues that affect the Democratic base. The result was a sweep: electoral votes for Biden/Harris and two Senate seats for the Democrats.

Finally, the chilling part. Biden/Harris won by a mere 22,000 votes. 1.3 million Georgia voters cast an absentee ballot in the 2020 presidential election. That is about a quarter of the 5 million total votes cast. 34 percent of Biden voters voted absentee.

Perhaps not surprisingly, recent articles in the Atlanta Journal Constitution have revealed that Mr. Raffensperger, the Georgia Secretary of State, and the Georgia Republican Party are moving swiftly to try to curtail absentee ballots in the state. Their plan is to try to ban all “at-will” absentee ballots. (Georgia has allowed absentee voting without an excuse since 2005.)  That, in conjunction with the closing of 214 precincts throughout the state since 2012, can only have one result: the disenfranchisement of lower income voters who are largely people of color.

So the fight in Georgia is far from over. But for now progressives everywhere owe a major debt of gratitude to Ms. Abrams and the Georgia Democratic base. We should all try to remember that in the days and years to come.