OPINION: Democracy is a 365-days-a-year process

A poll worker wearing protective gloves waits to assist voters during special election voting at City Hall to fill an empty city council seat on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Dacula. The voting happened to be on a day that was supposed to be the test run for the state's new election system before coronavirus COVID-19 caused it to be called off. (John Amis for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
A poll worker wearing protective gloves waits to assist voters during special election voting at City Hall to fill an empty city council seat on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Dacula. The voting happened to be on a day that was supposed to be the test run for the state's new election system before coronavirus COVID-19 caused it to be called off. (John Amis for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

UPDATE: Based on additional information received after publication, the Georgia Secretary of State’s voter history file shows the recording of Nedra Rhone’s ballot was delayed, but her vote has been counted.

For a long time, I believed voter disenfranchisement was something that happened to other people. People who couldn’t leave work to stand in long lines. People who didn’t have a car to get to the polls. People who did not have a state-issued ID. People who were too young or too old to navigate registration requirements.

I don’t fall into any of those categories. I have voted in every presidential election since I was 18 years old. I was even lucky enough to come of voting age during an election year, giving me almost 10 elections under my belt.

But in the 2020 presidential election, my fourth election as a resident of Georgia, it appears my vote was not counted.

Despite numerous phone calls and emails over the past several months, no one — not the secretary of state, Fulton County or any number of voter hotlines — has been able to tell me exactly what happened to my ballot.

So last month when Georgia lawmakers passed sweeping legislation that threatens to reduce access to voting, I could only think about how many Georgia residents are like me, believing themselves to be exempt from the impact of such laws until the one day when their vote also doesn’t get counted.

ExploreSweeping changes to Georgia elections signed into law

Last week, I started a new role at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In more than 15 years as a reporter for the paper, I’ve written about everything from entertainment to the environment. Before moving to Atlanta, I lived in New York, where I wrote about education and covered breaking news on Long Island.

Atlanta seemed like a place to settle and I hope readers will view this column in the same way — a place to talk about the things you might normally only discuss with friends and family but which greatly impact our lives in metro Atlanta.

I wanted to write about voting, or not voting as it were, because it’s as good a story as any to demonstrate how important it is for all of us to stay connected and engaged with our communities.

This year, the sheer volume of bills across the country changing voting access is alarming, but this did not happen overnight.

Since 2013 when the Supreme Court determined Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, states have set about instituting new voting legislation. That section established a formula for identifying districts that needed federal approval of any changes to voting laws or processes.

Last month, bolstered by former President Donald Trump’s unproven charges of election fraud, Georgia passed legislation that reduces the number and available hours of absentee ballot drop boxes, increases ID requirements for voting by mail, and limits the distribution of food and water to voters who are waiting in line. Lawmakers also considered eliminating Sunday voting and no-excuse absentee voting but backed off after public outcry.

A man holds a sign saying "Quit Stealing Our 'Votes'" as African American religious leaders announce a boycott of Home Depot over inaction on recent voting legislation in Georgia, across from a Home Depot in Decatur on April 20, 2021. (Courtesy of Nathan Posner)
A man holds a sign saying "Quit Stealing Our 'Votes'" as African American religious leaders announce a boycott of Home Depot over inaction on recent voting legislation in Georgia, across from a Home Depot in Decatur on April 20, 2021. (Courtesy of Nathan Posner)

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

Though I have voted absentee as a resident of two other states in the past, the 2020 election was the first time I requested an absentee ballot to vote as a Georgia resident in a presidential election. I did so because at the end of September, my father was hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage. I spent the month of October in Ohio with my family shuttling back and forth between the hospital and managing his care.

It felt like a godsend that I had already received a request form for an absentee ballot. The new Georgia law specifically calls out the “enthusiasm of some outside groups in sending multiple absentee ballot applications in 2020” as having “led to significant confusion by electors.”

I filled out the form, mailed it in and received a ballot a week or so later at my parents’ address.

The shorter version of this story is that my father passed away in mid-October, and as my family and I focused on arrangements and dealt with our grief, my completed ballot sat tucked inside the cover of a book until about 10 days before Election Day. By then, given the sluggish pace of the U.S. Postal Service, I feared it would never arrive in time if I mailed it.

So, at 5 a.m. on Election Day, I packed up my car with a sleepy tween and a sluggish puppy and drove nine hours back to Atlanta to deliver my absentee ballot in person. At 2 p.m., I dropped my ballot in the drop box at Mechanicsville Library and headed home feeling confident that I had done my civic duty and honored the democracy that my father, an 87-year-old African American Army veteran, had taught me to love and support.

But weeks later, I learned my ballot was missing in action. I checked the Georgia My Voter Page. I checked BallotTrax. I called every hotline I could find. I still do not have confirmation that my vote was counted.

I was told, on background by individuals who would know, that there could have been some sort of error — either on my part or the part of Fulton County election workers — that prevented my vote from being counted or that my vote may have been counted and just not recorded in the tracking system.

It would be easy to discount my experience as a one-off, a set of unique circumstances created by the perfect storm of a global pandemic and a personal crisis, but I think that would be a mistake. I keep thinking of all the ways the new voting law would have made it even harder for me to cast a vote from the point of requesting a ballot all the way to getting it into a drop box.

I agree with Eliza Sweren-Becker, who said in a recent conversation that our democracy works best when the greatest number of Americans can participate and have their voices heard.

Sweren-Becker, counsel in the Democracy Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice focusing on voting rights and elections, said before 2020, voters of both political parties used absentee voting in equal numbers.

ExplorePoll shows deep divisions over Georgia voting law

“Democratic voters used it more than Republican voters last year because the former president waged an all-out assault on mail voting, but it is not the case that the discrepancy will carry forward,” Sweren-Becker said.

Gov. Brian Kemp has said Senate Bill 202 preserves election integrity. “This bill expands voting access, streamlines vote-counting procedures, and ensures election integrity,” he said in a statement after President Joe Biden called the legislation “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”

Several days ago, a coalition of faith leaders launched a boycott of Home Depot, saying the Atlanta-based business has not done enough to oppose the voting law. Corporations including Delta and Coca-Cola have taken a stand against the legislation and voter suppression. It is, of course, unclear what impact the new law will have on future elections in Georgia.

ExploreFaith leaders call for Home Depot boycott over Georgia election law

Critics believe the law will disproportionately hurt Black voters, while some analysts have said the law would have little impact on Georgia’s voting populace at all.

For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to lose a basic American right and my singular hope is that anyone who wants to vote and who has done everything in his or her power to vote has that opportunity in the future.

Democracy, said Sweren-Becker, is a 365-days-a-year process.

We all have a responsibility to make sure it is working.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and Find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com

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