Calls of ‘Jim Crow’ spark debate about Georgia election law

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Nicole Moore, director of education at Center for Civil and Human Rights, talks about the history of Jim Crow laws in the south. Video by Ryon and Tyson Horne

Democrats and voting rights activists have branded Georgia’s new election law “Jim Crow 2.0,” the modern equivalent of voter suppression tactics that disenfranchised Black Americans for nearly a century after the Civil War.

They say new identification requirements, limits on ballot drop boxes and other provisions of the law are a deliberate attempt to suppress voters of color who helped deliver Georgia to President Joe Biden and the U.S. Senate to Democrats in recent elections.

“Republicans wrote Georgia’s voting laws, and those laws were just fine until Republicans started losing elections because of high turnout of Black voters and voters of color writ large,” said Seth Bringman of Fair Fight, a voting rights group. “This bill is a backlash to the expression of Black Americans’ power, just like Jim Crow 1.0.”

Republicans and other supporters of Senate Bill 202 say such comparisons are false and offensive. They say the bill’s provisions are in the mainstream of U.S. voting laws and that labeling them “Jim Crow” has led to consequences such as Major League Baseball’s decision to pull this year’s All-Star game out of Georgia.

“There’s nothing ‘racist’ about (SB 202), and it’s certainly not ‘Jim Crow 2.0,’ ” the group Conservative Clergy of Color wrote in an advertisement blasting Democrats.

ExploreHow Georgia’s voting law works

Gov. Brian Kemp signs into law Senate Bill 202, Georgia's new election statute, during a ceremony behind closed doors at the state Capitol.
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Gov. Brian Kemp signs into law Senate Bill 202, Georgia's new election statute, during a ceremony behind closed doors at the state Capitol.

Credit: Gov. Brian Kemp's office

Credit: Gov. Brian Kemp's office

A look at the history of Jim Crow in Georgia and across the South shows there’s evidence for both views on SB 202.

Civil rights and election experts see clear parallels in false cries of “voter fraud” used as a rationale for both Jim Crow and SB 202. They also see provisions of both that — while race-neutral on their face — seem designed to target people of color.

But there are also clear differences. The Jim Crow era was marked by lynchings and other racial violence missing from the debate over SB 202. And the law’s impact won’t be nearly as dramatic as Jim Crow, which prevented nearly all Black Southerners from voting. Some election experts say the new law could even backfire on Republicans, inspiring greater minority turnout.

Democrats including Biden and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock took up the cry of “Jim Crow” in March, and it continues to echo as other states adopt stricter voter rules. With prominent Republicans continuing to claim the November presidential election was stolen, one expert says the debate about elections in Georgia will continue to feature hyperbole and false statements.

About our coverage

Providing the facts and context that help readers understand the current debate over voting laws is a priority for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Our journalists work hard to be fair and will follow this complex story as it continues to develop.

For a better understanding of the issues that drove Legislative action and reaction that followed, click on these links.

Latest news on voting bills

15 headlines that explain the debate

Jim Crow in Georgia

Georgia has a long history of disenfranchising Black residents. The state’s first constitution in 1777 prohibited Black people from voting.

That ban continued until after the Civil War, when federal troops in the South enforced the new 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed citizens the right to vote, regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

For a brief period, substantial numbers of Black Southerners registered, voted and won political office. By the early 1870s, Black residents accounted for nearly 40% of registered voters in Georgia, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

But Northern efforts to protect the rights of Black Southerners waned. Federal troops withdrew in 1877, and concerted efforts by Southern states to subvert civil rights laws “resulted in a backlash limiting access to voting for African-American citizens,” according to the commission.

Thus began the era of Jim Crow, which lasted until the 1960s.

Marchers protest against segregation at Davison's department store in February 1961, displaying placards opposing Jim Crow laws as they walk on the sidewalk fronting Peachtree Street.
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Marchers protest against segregation at Davison's department store in February 1961, displaying placards opposing Jim Crow laws as they walk on the sidewalk fronting Peachtree Street.

Credit: AJC Staff

Credit: AJC Staff

Named for a Black minstrel show character, Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation in schools and other facilities and prevented Black people from voting.

Georgia used a variety of methods to disenfranchise Black residents. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, the state implemented poll taxes (1877), whites-only primary elections (1900) and literacy tests (1908) to limit voting.

Georgia also used onerous residency requirements, cumbersome registration procedures, voter challenges and purges, and discriminatory redistricting practices to disenfranchise Black residents, according to research by Adrienne Jones, a political scientist at Morehouse College.

The laws were enforced by the threat of violence. Between 1882 and 1930, at least 458 people were lynched in Georgia, second only to Mississippi’s 538 people.

Court decisions eventually chipped away at Jim Crow. A federal court invalidated Georgia’s white primary in 1946. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregated schools in 1954.

But Southern states resisted. In 1957, for example, Georgia made its literacy test even harder and doubled the number of correct answers needed to pass.

Civil rights leader John Lewis and other marchers for voting rights are clubbed by Alabama state troopers on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Ala. Reaction to the clash, known as Bloody Sunday, helped lead to passage of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act and bringing an end to Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation in the South. (AP Photo/File)
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Civil rights leader John Lewis and other marchers for voting rights are clubbed by Alabama state troopers on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Ala. Reaction to the clash, known as Bloody Sunday, helped lead to passage of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act and bringing an end to Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation in the South. (AP Photo/File)

Ultimately, Jim Crow laws persisted until Congress approved the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Even then, Georgia continued to run afoul of the law. Under a provision of the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Justice Department objected to 177 election changes in Georgia through 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the provision that required federal approval of such changes.

Jim Crow 2.0?

Democrats say that, like Jim Crow laws, many of SB 202′s provisions deliberately target Black and brown people.

The law requires voters who cast absentee ballots to provide a driver’s license, state ID number or other identification. Studies have shown people of color are more likely to lack identification, and more than 200,000 Georgia voters don’t have an ID.

Restrictions in Senate Bill 202 include limits on the number drop boxes and where they can be located. In November, the four largest metro Atlanta counties deployed a combined 111 drop boxes. Under SB 202, they’ll be allowed just 23. Critics say the effect will be to suppress voting by people of color in metro Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Restrictions in Senate Bill 202 include limits on the number drop boxes and where they can be located. In November, the four largest metro Atlanta counties deployed a combined 111 drop boxes. Under SB 202, they’ll be allowed just 23. Critics say the effect will be to suppress voting by people of color in metro Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

SB 202 also limits the number and location of ballot drop boxes, used for the first time last year under emergency rules to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. In November, the four largest metro Atlanta counties deployed a combined 111 drop boxes. Under SB 202, they’ll be allowed just 23. Critics say the effect will be to suppress voting by people of color in metro Atlanta.

Critics say numerous other provisions target people of color, including strict limits on voting outside your regular precinct and a ban on providing food and drink to people waiting to vote. They say the food and drink ban disproportionately affects people of color, who are more likely than white residents to face long lines for in-person voting.

“When the power of Georgia Republicans became threatened, they did not skip a beat,” Bringman said. “They changed the rules — rules they wrote to benefit themselves — in very specific ways that will disproportionately harm Black voters.”

Some civil rights experts see other parallels with Jim Crow.

The rationale for poll taxes and other voting restrictions in Mississippi’s 1890 constitution — a model for other Southern states, including Georgia — was to restore election integrity, said Carol Anderson, chair of African American studies at Emory University. But Mississippi’s governor admitted the real reason was to eliminate Black people from politics, she said.

Fulton County residents wait in line in December at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta to cast their ballots during early voting for Georgia's U.S. Senate runoffs.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Fulton County residents wait in line in December at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta to cast their ballots during early voting for Georgia's U.S. Senate runoffs. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

This year, Georgia lawmakers began calling for new voting laws as then-President Donald Trump repeatedly made false allegations that fraud cost him the presidential election. And SB 202 cites “allegations of rampant voter fraud” in 2020 as well as Democratic allegations of voter suppression in 2018.

Experts also cite the race-neutral language of Jim Crow laws and SB 202. As written, poll taxes and literacy tests excluded some white voters as well as Black voters, though exemptions and unequal enforcement allowed many white people to vote.

Andra Gillespie, an Emory political scientist, said the disparate impact of some SB 202 provisions is also cloaked in race-neutral language.

“Racism is dynamic,” she said. “A new form of racism isn’t going to adopt the old forms that were clearly outlawed by constitutional amendments and the passage of the Voting Rights Act.”

‘Lazy, biased and political’

Republicans say comparisons between SB 202 and Jim Crow laws are politically motivated.

At a recent U.S. Senate hearing, one senator noted Fair Fight created a Stop Jim Crow 2 website before the final version of SB 202 was unveiled — suggesting the group was attempting to “smear Georgia.”

Bringman, the Fair Fight representative, said the website was created as “Jim Crow 2.0 voter suppression bills were popping up across the country, including multiple bills in Georgia.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has decried the criticisms of the state's new voting law, Senate Bill 202, that call it "Jim Crow 2.0." He compares them to former President Donald Trump's false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. “These narratives are as lazy, biased and political as they are demonstrably wrong," Raffensperger said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has decried the criticisms of the state's new voting law, Senate Bill 202, that call it "Jim Crow 2.0." He compares them to former President Donald Trump's false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. “These narratives are as lazy, biased and political as they are demonstrably wrong," Raffensperger said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — praised by Democrats for his handling of the 2020 election — is among those who say cries of “Jim Crow” are false. He likened them to Trump’s false claims the election was stolen.

“(Democrat) Stacey Abrams is no doubt fundraising off her absurd — and offensive — suggestion that this law is ‘Jim Crow 2.0,’ ” said Raffensperger, a Republican. “These narratives are as lazy, biased and political as they are demonstrably wrong.”

Republicans say Georgia election laws are more voter-friendly than those of many states controlled by Democrats. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found many of SB 202′s provisions are similar or less restrictive than other states’ election laws. Others, such as a ban on providing food and drink to voters in line, are unusual, though states commonly bar campaigning near polling places and giving gifts to voters.

“If Democrats honestly believed what they’re saying, they would direct their outrage at other states that have far less accessibility than Georgia,” Republican state House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones said.

Jones said the bill does not target people of color. Instead, she said it addresses Republican and Democratic concerns about the 2020 election, just as lawmakers addressed Democratic concerns after the 2018 election. She said it also addresses the extraordinary circumstances of 2020 elections.

Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones and other Republicans say that Senate Bill 202 is more voter-friendly than the election laws in many states led by Democrats. “If Democrats honestly believed what they’re saying, they would direct their outrage at other states that have far less accessibility than Georgia,” she said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones and other Republicans say that Senate Bill 202 is more voter-friendly than the election laws in many states led by Democrats. “If Democrats honestly believed what they’re saying, they would direct their outrage at other states that have far less accessibility than Georgia,” she said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“We held the first primary and general elections following a new statewide election system during the first modern worldwide pandemic and with record turnout,” Jones said. “The three together stressed our election system like I’ve never seen.”

Jones said requiring identification to cast an absentee ballot is “reasonable election security” that’s popular with voters. She said new rules for drop boxes address security concerns and reports of ballots overflowing from unattended boxes.

She said absentee voting was popular during the pandemic, but it may subside under normal conditions. If the increased absentee voting persists, “then it certainly would be reasonable to look again at drop boxes,” she said.

Jones said limits on casting provisional ballots in the wrong precinct were needed because the practice, once unusual, had spread in recent years. She said it caused long lines at some precincts and delayed final results because provisional ballots must be adjudicated.

And Jones said the ban on food and drink was needed because partisans were using it as an excuse to evade laws against campaigning near polling places. She doubts the ban will be a hardship for voters.

“No one’s going to die of dehydration or starvation,” Jones said. “This is Georgia, not the Sahara Desert.”

Major differences

Experts say SB 202 differs from Jim Crow in important respects.

The old laws were enforced by systemic violence against African Americans. Though there were concerns about widespread voter intimidation in November, it did not materialize.

Still, Anderson, the chair of African American studies at Emory, said violence wasn’t the only distinguishing factor of the Jim Crow era.

“Folks often think of Jim Crow solely in terms of the incredible violence that rained down on Black folks. The lynchings, the bombing of churches,’” she said. “But what gave Jim Crow its legitimacy were the laws.”

Perhaps the most important difference will be impact.

University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said the new law could discourage enough voters to swing a close election. But he said Jim Crow laws prevented 99% of Black Southerners from voting, and nothing like that can be expected from SB 202.

“To call this Jim Crow 2.0 is hyperbole and diminishes the impact of the real Jim Crow laws,” Bullock said.

In fact, he said SB 202 could inspire greater turnout from voters of color angry about new obstacles to voting — just as Republicans are motivated by allegations of voting fraud. So Georgians should get used to hearing about both.

“The whole controversy,” Bullock said, “serves both sides.”