Gaining ground on race

It appears we’re doomed to spend much of this election season talking about race and partisanship as if they’re interchangeable. Consider two stories from this past week.

Story 1: DeKalb and other counties announce voters this year will be able to cast their ballots on a Sunday. Given the historical ties between predominantly black churches and the Democratic Party, some Republicans accuse these counties of partisanship. Cue the accusations of GOP “racism.”

Story 2: Secretary of State Brian Kemp says he’s investigating voter-registration efforts by a group called the New Georgia Project, following complaints of forgery from several county election offices. Given the group’s emphasis on registering African-Americans, some Democrats accuse Kemp, a Republican, of partisanship. Cue the accusations of GOP “racism.”

It’s no secret that, in Georgia as elsewhere, black voters tend to back Democratic candidates. (If you didn’t know, maybe you missed the memo to Michelle Nunn.)

Because of this link, any effort to boost registration and turnout among black voters, who historically lagged that of white Georgians but have been catching up in recent years, is seen by Republicans through a partisan lens. Democrats attribute GOP objections to race.

Likewise, Republicans are generally more focused on preventing voter fraud. Naturally, they want to shine a spotlight on mistakes by their opponents. (I say this generally, not specifically about Kemp’s official investigation.) But because their opponents’ efforts are chiefly about boosting participation by minorities to a more proportionate level, Republicans’ anti-fraud work is easily cast in a racial, rather than merely partisan, light.

It’s a poisonous cycle. And it’s up to Republicans to stop it.

Democrats won’t let up. Emphasizing the racial angle at every turn is to their benefit, even if it damages Georgia in the long run.

So Republicans must work to ensure “GOP” and “black voters” (or any other minority that traditionally votes for Democrats) don’t appear together only in stories about voting itself.

It’s not as if the Georgia GOP is without issues to sell to minority voters. Charter schools, mostly championed by Republicans in this state, benefit non-white students the most — in number of kids served as well as academic gains.

Similarly, the criminal justice reforms passed in recent years, to get nonviolent drug offenders out of prisons and back into productive roles in society, are more likely to benefit non-white Georgians — if only because, fairly or not, they were disproportionately likely to be jailed under the old laws.

Instead of complaining Sunday voting will hurt Republicans by boosting black turnout, why not take the argument to black voters that backing Republicans can lead to more such reforms?

Do that, and it’d take some of the racial implications out of claims of fraud if and when they come. Or, at a minimum, balance them.

The state GOP has begun reaching out to minorities. Some local branches — the Fulton GOP comes to mind — are further along. But the tentative nature of most of these efforts suggest a belief this can be a long-term project, that results aren’t needed immediately.

This year’s election is shaping up differently. Republicans can’t quickly make up ground they didn’t cover in previous years. But they can stop making matters worse.

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