Black senior citizens ordered off Georgia bus taking them to vote

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Government officials in an east Georgia county told about 40 African-American senior citizens to get off a bus taking them to vote Monday, leading to complaints of voter suppression.

The bus, run by the group Black Voters Matter, was preparing to depart from a senior center operated by Jefferson County when the center's director said they needed to disembark, said LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter.

A county clerk had called the senior center raising concerns about allowing the bus to take residents from the senior center in the city of Louisville, south of Augusta.

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“We knew it was an intimidation tactic,” Brown said Tuesday. “It was really unnecessary. These are grown people.”

The senior citizens agreed to get off the bus and cast their ballots later. Monday was the first day of in-person early voting in Georgia in the election for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.

Jefferson County’s administrator said Tuesday that the county government considered the event at the senior center “political activity,” which isn’t allowed during county-sponsored events.

Black Voters Matter is a nonpartisan group encouraging African-Americans to vote in the election, but the county government considered the event political because Jefferson County Democratic Party Chairwoman Diane Evans helped organize it, County Administrator Adam Brett said in a statement.

“Jefferson County administration felt uncomfortable with allowing senior center patrons to leave the facility in a bus with an unknown third party,” Brett said. “No seniors at the Jefferson County senior center were denied their right to vote.”

ThinkProgress, a progressive news website, first reported the incident Monday.

Black Voters Matter had received permission in advance for the event at the senior center, Brown said. The event was originally intended to encourage seniors to vote, and when some of the seniors asked whether they could ride the bus to an early-voting location, Black Voters Matter agreed to take them.

But someone apparently saw the bus, painted with the words “The South is Rising Tour,” and called county government offices, Brown said. That led to the phone call from the county clerk to the senior center. When they were asked, the senior citizens agreed to leave the bus.

“It was discouraging that they weren’t able to vote,” said Evans, who was on the bus. “When they’re suppressing votes, they’re going to come up with any kind of excuse about what your problem is.”

Evans said the event wasn’t political, nor did its organizers advocate for any candidates. Evans said she helped coordinate the event in her capacity as a private citizen, pastor and community leader, not as the chairwoman of the county’s Democratic Party.

During the event, the senior citizens got excited about voting and they danced near the bus as “Say It Loud — I’m Black and Proud” by James Brown blasted through the speakers, Evans said.

After the seniors got off the bus, they were initially told they could ride in a county van provided by the senior center to go vote, Brown said. But then the seniors had to get off the van because the senior center’s leaders decided it was close to lunchtime, and the seniors could vote another day.

Jefferson County Commission Chairman Mitchell McGraw didn’t respond to an email seeking comment, and the senior citizens who were on the bus couldn’t immediately be located for comment Tuesday. The senior center’s staff routinely arranges public transit options for senior citizens to vote, Brett said.

Despite the obstacles, the senior citizens will find a way to cast their ballots, Brown said.

“The seniors were so resolved. They said: ‘We’re going to vote. Nobody’s going to stop us,’ ” Brown said. “It wasn’t the first time someone has denied them or tried to prevent them from voting.”

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