‘They always put other barriers in place’: how Georgia activists fought off voter suppression

As voter suppression became more brazen, overcoming it was a core part of work that organizers did to mobilize a new electorate

Deborah Scott has been registering voters for well over a decade in Georgia, but about five years ago she began to notice a problem. Georgia Stand-Up, the civic action group she leads, started getting a spike in calls from people who said they filled out a voter registration form but never received an official voter registration card. “We’re like ‘hey, what’s going on here?,’” she said.

Scott’s group adjusted their voter registration strategy. After they got someone to register, they started tracking their voter registration and following up with them to ensure it went through. When there was a problem, they would help the voter follow up with local election officials. Sometimes, after that follow-up inquiry, the election officials would “miraculously” discover the registration was there all along, Scott said.

Georgia Stand-Up took their strategy into the general election last year and Senate runoff this year, both of which saw extremely high turnout among Black voters. It’s a surge that many have attributed to years of investment by activists like Scott and Democrat Stacey Abrams, to mobilize voters of color, who traditionally have had lower turnout than their white counterparts, and flip the state for Democrats in stunning upsets in both the presidential race (Joe Biden was the first Democrat to carry the state in a presidential race in nearly 30 years) and two US Senate runoffs.

As voter suppression has become more brazen in Georgia, overcoming it has become a core part of the work that Abrams and other organizers have done to mobilize the new electorate in the state. This work is not glamorous, focused on helping new voters navigate a bureaucracy designed to make it more difficult to vote. It’s making calls to voters to ensure they know their polling place, explaining how to fill out a mail-in ballot, and making sure they aren’t wrongly purged from the voter rolls. But the multi-year investment in overcoming voting barriers significantly contributed to organizers’ success in Georgia this year.

“What we kept seeing was no matter what turnout we had, if we turned out in larger numbers, they always put other barriers in place,” said Helen Butler, the executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, another civil rights group focused on mobilizing voters of color. “We had to go through strategies that would help us to be more proactive.” Georgia Republicans have already signaled they plan to move ahead with new restrictions on vote-by-mail after an election in which a record number of people used the process.

Butler said her group had to shift considerable resources to combat voter suppression starting in 2013, when the US supreme court struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required places with a history of voting discrimination to submit voting changes to the federal government for approval before they went into effect. After the decision, her group began sending representatives to local boards of election so they could learn about polling place changes and consolidations and other changes they needed to know about before election day.

Those strategies crystallized during the 2018 gubernatorial race, when Abrams lost to Brian Kemp, then the state’s top election official, and Georgia’s voting barriers were thrust to the center of the race. There was harsh scrutiny of state policy that placed 53,000 voter registrations in suspense over small discrepancies, 70% of which were Black voters. Georgia’s practice of aggressively purging hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls became a matter of national attention. For many, the election illuminated how severely restrictive voting rules could affect an election outcome.

“There were so many people who had problems with their registration and didn’t discover the problem until they were already at the polls,” said Sara Tindall Ghazal, who worked as the Georgia Democratic party’s voter protection director from 2018 to 2019. “And when more than half of voters would vote on election day, it’s too late to fix anything then.”

Beyond highlighting severe barriers in Georgia, the 2018 election also highlighted Democrats’ political strength in Georgia, Ghazal added, opening up money and other resources for grassroots groups that previously hadn’t existed. Abrams’ decision to focus on voting barriers in the state after the election only further galvanized support.

In recent years, Butler said, her group has stepped up efforts to prevent voters from being wrongfully purged. Regularly monitoring Georgia’s voter rolls, her group will contact voters who are at risk of being purged to inform them of how they can confirm their eligibility. If someone has been purged, they tell them how they can re-register.

“We didn’t always do that. We didn’t have to do that until recently,” Butler said.

This year, Fair Fight, the organization Abrams started after the 2018 election, had a network of more than 15,000 volunteers to help people overcome barriers to voting. When it looked like Pooler, a city just outside Savannah, wouldn’t offer any ballot drop boxes, Fair Fight texted voters there to get them to push local officials to install one, said Marisa Pyle, the group’s volunteer and rapid response organizer. Once officials announced there would be a drop box after all, Fair Fight followed up with voters and let them know the location. The group took a similar approach to pressure officials to allow early voting on campus at the University of Georgia.

“Our goal was to make sure they got [voting information] in a way that was accessible. And when there were access gaps, trying to fill them with advocacy and our volunteer work,” Pyle said.

The effort to contact voters doesn’t stop after election day. Once the polls closed in theSenate runoff, Butler and other groups launched an aggressive effort to contact voters who submitted a provisional ballot at the polls – a special kind of ballot election workers are required to offer if there is uncertainty about their eligibility.

Butler said her group will often work with voters to help them understand what kind of documentation they need to provide to election officials in the days after the election in order to ensure their ballot isn’t rejected. If they are on the phone with a voter, organizers will sometimes even set up a three-way call with the board of elections to ensure they understand what they need to do to have their vote counted.

The approach was deployed deftly in the general election and runoff. This year, when there were polling place changes in Georgia, organizers sent volunteers to the old locations to make sure voters were redirected to the new one. And as organizers knocked on doors trying to turn out new voters, teaching them about the voting process was at the heart of their conversations.

As she knocked on doors ahead of the Senate runoff, Lacreasa Acey, a 38-year-old canvasser, said the emphasis on overcoming voting barriers was a big part of the conversations she had with voters. Sometimes, the information she offered could be as simple as telling people where they could vote or showing them how to fill out an absentee ballot.

“It’s amazing how so many people are not aware of simple voting information. They don’t know where to go, they don’t know how to mail in ballots or anything like that, so they get frustrated and they say ‘you know what, I’m just not gonna vote at all,’” said Acey, who knocked on doors on behalf of the New South Super Pac, which backed the Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. “I have everything already. I have the answers.”


Sam Levine in New York

The GuardianTramp

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