Georgia advocates gather to rally and plot strategy as Biden voting rights push for blockade
On Tuesday, more than a dozen voting rights groups, led by religious leaders, will meet at the King Center in Atlanta to rally their organizations ahead of the midterm elections — and map out their strategy for circumventing new regulations they see as limiting ballot access. The groups, which are mostly nonpartisan but also aligned with Democratic efforts, aim to show GOP leaders that their work will continue despite the law.
“They put these mechanisms in place to retain power. That’s the name of the game right now: wielding power by any means necessary,” Reverend Timothy McDonald III of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta said in an interview. “So we have to be able to overcome all this negativism that they’re going to throw at us, on top of what they already have in place.”
The Atlanta summit comes as Democrats have failed to advance voting rights legislation, a key campaign promise for black voters who helped deliver Georgia. Since then, Republicans in many states have enacted restrictive new election laws, prompted in part by false claims of a stolen 2020 election by allies of former President Donald Trump.
Biden won Georgia by nearly 12,000 votes, the first time a Democrat has won the state since 1992. Democrats also won two Georgia Senate polls in 2021, giving Democrats unified control of the state. Congress for the first time in a decade. Consequently, many suffrage activists in Georgia are appalled by the lack of progress by Democrats in expanding ballot access, especially among communities of color.
“Our call is first and foremost to expand the vote, but that’s not a given,” Reverend Jamal Bryant, of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, Georgia, told The Post. “It’s something this administration should really address and fight the battle for us, otherwise they’re going to see the repercussions.”
The Georgia bill, which was signed by Governor Brian Kemp (R) in March 2021, has sparked a backlash from big business and local religious leaders. Kemp and other GOP officials, such as Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, had rejected pressure from Trump and others to change the election result. But Kemp defended the bill as a necessary boost to election security and touted some measures to expand voting, such as allowing an extra day of early voting and more drop boxes in some rural counties.
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“After the November elections of last year, I knew, like many of you, that significant reforms to our state elections were needed,” Kemp said after signing the bill, arguing that there was a “competence crisis” in the state election administration.
Kemp has long been a supporter of expanding voter ID restrictions. During his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Kemp — then secretary of state — outraged voting rights groups by purging more than 53,000 voters over a strict “signature-matching” policy.
Opponents of the law, however, have pointed to numerous other measures that they say are intended to suppress minority participation. The bill limits the overall number of drop boxes, imposes new voter identification requirements and criminalizes the distribution of water and food to online voters, among other measures.
Limiting the number of drop boxes and the times they are accessible “penalizes counties that have large populations,” said Reverend Lee May of Transforming Faith Church in DeKalb County. Noting the large minority populations in counties like DeKalb, Lee said the bill is “a way to suppress the black and brown vote without saying you suppress the black and brown vote.”
Biden joined Georgia Democrats in speaking out against the law and similar laws elsewhere, calling them “Jim Crow 2.0” and “un-American” during a speech in Atlanta on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He also called to an exclusion from obstructing the Senate to pass suffrage legislation. But several Senate bills remain stalled, with at least two centrist — Sens. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) — resisting calls to change the filibuster, which the GOP would likely use to block the measures.
“Our community has faithfully defended democracy even when we have not benefited from it. So I think that’s a campaign promise that needs to be kept,” Bryant said.
For Georgia defenders, it has become increasingly clear that they will have to find a way to organize around the new restrictions. “Now we know the rules of the game. So now we can adjust and react smartly,” McDonald said.
A key response, advocates said, is better education — particularly teaching voters when they can now apply for mail-in ballots and how to comply with new ID requirements.
This is going to be the focus of two nonpartisan initiatives founded by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Fair Count and The New Georgia Project, which are among groups supporting the rally in Atlanta this week. Although neither group is affiliated with Abrams’ campaign, they pursue voter registration and education initiatives based on his goal of empowering more minority communities.
“Our mission remains the same, with education, awareness and encouraging voters to make their voices heard. [Georgia’s voter law] made changes that will impact what we talk about, including new requirements for mail-in voting, but fundamentally our goals on the ground remain the same,” said Fair Count program director Melva Steps.
Fair Count is also partnering with VoteRiders, a nonpartisan voter ID education group, to reach out and help Georgians who might otherwise not be able to navigate the new system. Other voting rights groups also plan to have more staff on the ground to help voters register properly and vote early and at the polls.
“In addition to voter registration, education and mobilization, we also provide voter protection,” said Reverend Cynthia Hale of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia. Faith leaders joined a coalition of legal groups in 2018 and 2020. to help voters who have had difficulty voting. With new voter requirements in place, Hale said the groups hope that building this network will allow them to “ensure that we can immediately report what is happening on the ground, so that we can make changes”.
In 2020, in-person voter registration efforts were greatly disrupted by the pandemic. While many advocates have returned to campaigning in person for the 2021 Senate runoff, groups hope to increase turnout by expanding those efforts.
There also remains an ongoing debate about how best to deal with the new restrictions. While Tuesday’s coalition will begin with plans that helped boost turnout in 2018 and 2020, especially among communities of color, activists say it’s unclear how these tried-and-true tactics will fare in the face of the new law.
But some hope there may be unexpected benefits. While the bill could lower turnout, the backlash has also helped energize the opposition, supporters say.
“It actually activated a lot of civic organizations,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, which has filed the lawsuit. She added that local businesses, faith groups and civic organizations “that aren’t political at all but believe in democracy” have begun to mobilize to register voters and expand access to the ballot.
The stakes are high in November in Georgia and beyond. The balance of power in Congress could hinge on several Georgian races, including Sen. Raphael G. Warnock’s (D) likely challenge to former NFL player and all-American Herschel Walker, which Trump has endorsed.
Abrams is set for a rematch against Kemp in the race for governor, while Georgia Democrats are also challenging for secretary of state and attorney general.
Georgia Republicans also signed into law a new congressional map that includes nine districts that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2020 and four that broke solidly for Biden with a relatively competitive race on the left. The map, which has jeopardized two House Democrats and led to a member-to-member primary in one district, threatens Democrats’ control of the House before the campaign begins in earnest.
Voting rights advocates argue that the newly drawn map also intentionally hinders the voting power of people of color. “Despite the growing population of people of color, they’ve drawn districts in such a way that they’ll be even less representative of the state’s diversity,” Young said. The ACLU of Georgia also sued the state over the cards.
New Georgia run-off data reveals more black voters than usual are out. Trump voters stayed home.
Groups meeting in Atlanta this week will seek to highlight the long history of black vote suppression in a state where Jim Crow was once the law of the land. Tuesday’s event will take place from the King Center at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the parish where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached and where Warnock still serves as senior pastor.
“I don’t just believe in reading history, but in making history,” McDonald said. “And Georgia made history in the last election and one of our things is going to be, let’s make history again.”
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