Sunday, October 21, 2018

In Georgia, Voter Suppression Seen in Governor's Race

      Welcome to the not-so-great state of Georgia, where a political candidate fox is running for governor while also supposedly protecting the integrity of the ballot box henhouse. Brian Kemp, the white Republican who superintends Georgia's election laws as secretary of state, is in a fiercely contested, racially charged contest for the governorship pitted against Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee who could be the state's first African American governor.
      Abrams' shot at the governorship in a red state attests to the changing demographics that have already started to turn some states from red to purple and to the strength of the anti-Trump blue wave even in states that Trump carried by substantial margins. With the Nov. 6 election now within sight and early voting already under way, the most recent poll shows Kemp with a statistically insignificant edge over Abrams: 47 percent to 46 percent, according to the Reuters/University of Virginia Center for Politics survey.
      In a race like that, every vote counts: so too every potential vote suppressed because of restrictive or inhospitable election procedures. Georgia was one of those states under special federal supervision for nearly 50 years because of its history of racial discrimination against would-be African American voters. Freed from the Voting Rights Act's preclearance requirement thanks to the Supreme Court's shamefully oblivious decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Georgia has now adopted all of the second-generation devices used to suppress voting among racial and ethnic minorities.
      Despite the evident political conflict of interest, Kemp has refused pleas that he should resign as secretary of state or recuse himself from election procedure issues while he himself is on the statewide ballot. In an ordinary race or in other times, his stance might pass an ethical smell test, but not in the current partisan divide created by Republican-backed vote-suppression measures in Georgia and so many other red states.
      In the most dramatic example of voter suppression, Kemp's office supervised the purging of some 591,000 Georgians from voters rolls in summer 2017. Like other GOP election officials, Kemp refers to wholesale deregistrations as "voter list maintenance," ostensibly aimed at removing voters who have moved or passed away. A journalistic investigation showed, however, that a substantial number, around 107,000, were removed for not voting —  in arguable disregard of federal law.
      Ohio's Republican secretary of state Jon Husted was hauled into federal court and eventually to the Supreme Court for his aggressive voter purges. The Roberts Court, in its 5-4 decision in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute in June, divided along partisan lines in upholding Husted's policies of initiating deregistration based on a voter's failure to vote in two successive federal elections. The applicable federal law specifies that states may not remove a voter based solely on failure to vote.
      Like Husted, Kemp follows a "use it or lose it" policy in initiating deregistration that, according to an investigation by American Public Media Reports, has disproportional impact on black voters. The APM investigation found that in six out of ten Georgia counties, black voters were removed at higher rates than white voters.
      Kemp is also now overseeing local election officials in enforcing a newly enacted Georgia law that blocks a would-be voter's registration if the applicant's information fails to perfectly match information from other sources: as inconsequential, for example, as a misspelled name or incomplete address. Some 53,000 registrations are on hold as a result: Kemp promises that the would-be voters can cast provisional ballots, but evidence from other states indicates that few voters who cast provisional ballots make the later trip needed to have their ballots counted.
      Georgia is also one of the red states to have passed restrictive voter ID laws, ostensibly aimed at the all-but-nonexistent problem of voter fraud by impersonation. In the current election, Democrats and voting rights groups have cried foul over the rejection of hundreds of absentee ballots in the minority-heavy Gwinnett County, outside Atlanta. To top it off, local election officials have closed some 214 precincts over the past six years — amounting to nearly 8 percent of the state's polling places — making it that much harder in some counties for would-be voters to cast ballots.
      Imagine, as the most dramatic example, Florida with a less punitive felon-disenfranchisement law on the books in 2000: among the 1 million-plus disenfranchised Floridians, a vote swing of fewer than 1,000 votes could have changed the course of history. In a concrete case, Wisconsin's strict voter ID law has been shown to have suppressed perhaps up to 200,000 votes in the Badger State: more than enough to have offset Donald Trump's 23,000-vote margin over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. In advance of the election, one Republican legislator openly boasted that the law "could make a difference."
      Strict voter ID laws held down the vote in other states as well, with results less easily to hypothesize. Again, the Supreme Court has given its ill-considered blessing to this voter-suppressive device. The 6-3 decision upholding Indiana's law Crawford v. Marion County Board of Election (2008) accepted with too little questioning the premise that photo IDs were needed to protect election security. In the years since, evidence — notably, in a Texas case — has shown that voter ID laws have disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minority voters. The wheels of election law justice grind all too slowly, however, allowing Republicans, as in Georgia, to exploit these tactics as part of a truly un-American political strategy.

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