October 12 was the first day of early voting in Georgia, and it was an unmitigated disaster. In the Atlanta area alone, voters in majority-Black suburbs like South Cobb waited upward of five hours to vote, while the upper-class Buckhead district saw waits of around 15 minutes. Elsewhere in the state, voters had to wait as much as 11 hours. So, really, just another catastrophic day of voting for a state that has become a focal point in the struggle between blue and red — as well as over how far one can stretch the rules of voting rights before breaking them.
How did we get here? Well, it begins and ends with one Brian Kemp.
In the end, Kemp won Georgia by 100,000 votes in an election that would have been subject to UN sanctions and investigation had it happened in any other country.
Brian Kemp already stole the Georgia election once. Every bit of news and information that has trickled out before and since the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race between then-Secretary of State Kemp and Stacey Abrams. A quick rundown:
- Between 2012 and 2018, Kemp canceled 1.4 million voter registrations — 670,000 of them in 2017 alone.
- Kemp put 53,000 votes on hold before the election, with more than 70% of those voters being African American.
- The ACLU of Georgia reported earlier this year that more than 200,000 voters had been purged from the rolls, due to false claims that they had moved without changing their addresses on their ballots.
- The 2018 election was marred by long lines and a shortage of voting booths, phenomena largely confined to Black polling locations.
- In emails sent to his staff, he mocked claims of voter suppression.
In the end, Kemp won Georgia by 100,000 votes in an election that would have been subject to UN sanctions and investigation had it happened in any other country. The outcome is a testament to how deeply endangered voting rights are in America — and an alarming look at what’s possible in 2020.
Heading into November 3, Georgia is even more of a toss-up state, and one of the most pivotal battlegrounds in the country. A Georgia that turns blue would be devastating for Trump’s dwindling hopes at a second term. In addition to the Oval Office, two Senate seats are up for grabs: Democrat Jon Ossoff threatening to unseat long-term incumbent David Perdue (you know, the guy who ridiculed Kamala Harris’ name), and Reverend Raphael Warnock is leading in the race to dethrone wildly unpopular Kelly Loeffler (whom Brian Kemp selected after Johnny Isakson retired due to health reasons in January). And, of course, Kemp himself is up for reelection in two years.
These statewide elections all seem destined for tightly contested runoffs in January. (Georgia law dictates that if no candidate gets a majority, the two leading vote-getters have a runoff.) In other words, every vote — and every suppressed voter — counts more than ever.
For any Democrat, a Georgia sweep would be grounds for celebration in November. That still may be the case, but there’s just too much worry about if or when votes will even be counted, if more registrations will be purged before November, and if this is all just a setup for another debacle. And for Black Georgians, especially, the worries are louder than ever.
“I’m worried about the votes this November because of the track record,” says Greg Clay, a community activist who has volunteered to work the polls this year. “It’s unfortunate that in a state like ours we’ve seen folks trying to block us from voting at every turn. I’ve had people who have voted in the same polling place for decades, wait in line two hours, and find out their location was changed. Do you think they’re going to wait another two hours somewhere else? It’s all intentional.”
The midterm elections — which were delayed until the summer due to the pandemic — only exacerbated worries. Polling places had malfunctioning voter machines and 10% of polling places closed. Many were understaffed or staffed by inexperienced workers due to Covid-19-related worries. Voters waited in lines for upward of eight hours. We can blame a public health crisis and the unpredictability of a rescheduled election, but the brunt of the problems came in majority-Black areas.
“I knew the lines were going to be long,” says one friend of mine, who prefers anonymity. Her original polling place in Atlanta had been closed; for the midterm, she had to go to a new place where the lines were noticeably longer. “I’d drive by the early polling place on early voting days and the lines were so long, I knew I had to get up early and go on the day of,” she says. The precinct still experienced malfunctioning ballots and mass confusion. She wasn’t back home for hours. “Meanwhile,” she says, “my friends in [Atlanta suburb] Sandy Springs were in and out in minutes.”
This time around, concerns over Trump’s tinkering with the Postal Service and whatever Kemp may bring has her not taking any chances. “I don’t want to sound conspiracy theorist or whatever,” she says, “but I don’t trust it unless I physically put my vote in on the machine.”
It’s a sentiment that is cascading across Black Georgians — especially in Atlanta, the blue heart of the state. Georgians have spent the past two years fighting voter suppression with ferocity, with Stacey Abrams leading the charge. Abrams’ Fair Fight Initiative has been battling every attempt at voter suppression with grassroots efforts while challenging closed precincts in court. Fair Fight joined forces with the Georgia NAACP, Black Votes Matter, and the Georgia Coalition For The People’s Agenda to form the Voter Empowerment Task Force, an all-star team of voting rights advocacy. Right now there are at least 17 different cases in litigation in Georgia involving voting rights; expect more in November as fights emerge over counting absentee ballots.
“I actually have confidence in our votes,” says Mbye Njie, an Atlanta resident who has been volunteering for phone banks to get voters registered. “Not enough people are talking about the infrastructure Stacey Abrams built since 2018. These groups have helped get people registered to vote again.”
Thanks to the NBA initiative to open up home stadiums as polling places, the Hawks’ State Farm Arena has been a blessing for people concerned about lines and germs — like Greg Clay. “The ballots are spread out and I was in and out in 15 minutes whereas other places may be hours,” he says.
While voter suppression may be a tangible enemy to fight, it still comes atop a global pandemic and attendant safety worries. Older voters, long a bedrock of Atlanta civic participation, now weigh the uncertainty of mail-in ballots and Postal Service issues with their own health and mortality.
There’s a cruel, American irony in the fact that the state that John Lewis called home for so long is the chief battleground for voting rights in America. Georgia represents the worst of what voter suppression efforts can look like — but it also represents what the most fervent and passionate fights to secure those rights look like as well.