Opinion: Trench warfare over the right to vote has arrived in Georgia

An early voter, who wore gloves to cast their ballot, shows off their sticker at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Lawrenceville, Monday, May 18, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

An early voter, who wore gloves to cast their ballot, shows off their sticker at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Lawrenceville, Monday, May 18, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

When the topic of ballot suppression jumps up, many Republicans point to the increasing number of Black voters on an expanding registration list that currently tops 7 million in Georgia — up a total 400,000 or so voters from 2016.

How can that, they ask, be suppression?

The problem is that confrontations over the right to cast a ballot don’t occur when a minority power is on the wane and fading into the woodwork. Historically, surges in Black voters and ballot suppression have been tightly linked. Over the last 200 years, the former has served as a trigger for the latter.

“It’s part of American history. And it’s not just a Southern phenomenon,” said Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University. “We saw this in 1821 in New York, when the number of freed Blacks grew to such an extent that New York changed its voting law so that white men no longer had to have any kind of property requirement.”

White men in the city would no longer need to own $100 or more in property in order to cast a ballot. But for Black men, the requirement was raised to $250.

Anderson was one of two women placed on a call with local journalists to answer Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s assertion, made a day earlier, that 1,000 or so Georgia voters were under investigation for voting twice in the state’s June 9 primary.

“A double-voter knows exactly what they’re doing, diluting the votes of each and every voter that follows the law,” Raffensperger said at a state Capitol press conference. Double-voting, a felony, carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $100,000.

Double ballots cast by accident, the secretary of state and his attorneys said, would not be excused.

Raffensperger named no names, but said the alleged violations were scattered among 100 of Georgia’s 159 counties. The number of double-votes cited by the secretary of state amounts to 0.09% of the 1.15 million absentee ballots cast in the primary — and 0.046% of a total 2.1 million ballots cast. No electoral outcomes were affected, Raffensperger said.

The timing of the secretary of state’s announcement was significant. By the end of next week, absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election will start flowing to Georgia voters who have asked for them.

With a pandemic still raging, mail-in votes are again certain to play a significant role — even as Raffensperger is under intense pressure by fellow party members, from the White House down, who fear that the influx of ballots cast from home will put the GOP at a disadvantage.

To make Raffensperger’s situation even more uncomfortable, the secretary of state’s condemnation of double-voting came only days after President Donald Trump urged voters to do exactly that — cast an absentee ballot, then “test” the system by trying to vote in person. Which, again, is a felony in Georgia.

Though Raffensperger conceded that 40% of the double-votes were cast in the Republican primary, Georgia Democrats are convinced that his Tuesday warning was meant for them. They accused Georgia’s top election official of scaremongering.

“It is designed to create an aura of fraud that is just not borne out by the data,” said Anderson, the Emory professor — whose presence had been arranged by Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams.

Anderson said Raffensperger’s press conference should be viewed in the larger context of a demographic shift that will ultimately put an overwhelmingly white Georgia GOP at a disadvantage. While Black voters have remained a steady 30 percent of the state’s electorate, growing in raw numbers, white voters have gone from 63% of those registered in 2008, to 59.8% in 2012, to 56% in 2016, and 53% as of Sept. 1.

Anderson also pointed out that Raffensperger’s predecessor, Brian Kemp, used the secretary of state’s investigatory powers to make a baseless claim — only days before the 2018 vote — that the Democratic Party of Georgia had illegally tampered with a state voter database.

And that Kemp had also presided over the attempted prosecution of a dozen Quitman, Ga., residents, all Black, who had organized an absentee ballot campaign to win control of the local school board. There were no convictions. So skepticism is required, the Emory professor said.

“Voter fraud is rare. And Georgia voters faced widespread administrative failures during this primary. Documented failures. What we really need to be having is a conversation about providing reassurance, calm and clarity,” Anderson said.

Anderson was followed by Cathy Cox, the last Democratic secretary of state and an unsuccessful 2006 candidate for governor. She’s now dean of the Mercer University School of Law.

Following the chaotic June 9 primaries, which saw many voters standing in line for hours, Cox criticized Raffensperger and his staff for not working more closely with county election offices on the debut of a second-generation of touchscreen voting machines.

Cox called Raffensperger’s press conference, made at the outset of an investigation rather than the conclusion, as “highly irregular, and in my view, improper.”

She took exception to Raffensperger’s contention that voter intent would be no excuse. “A person would have had to knowingly tried to game the system. And some may have — but we won’t know that until there is an investigation,” she said.

Cox outlined a scenario in which a voter could unintentionally cast a double vote. “A lot of voters probably went to the polls in June to find out whether their absentee ballot had been received. And if not, they wanted to make sure their vote counted,” she said.

If that were the case, the fault would lay with the secretary of state, who maintains a database of who has already cast absentee or early votes, she said. “Any person who had already voted should never have been allowed into a polling place to cast a double vote — unless the secretary of state’s database was not working or the election process otherwise broke down,” Cox said.

Her verdict: “This was not anything more than an effort to sow chaos and to cast doubt on the absentee mail voting system in Georgia — and certainly a rush to judgment.”

We passed Cox’s remarks to Raffensperger’s office, and received this response from Jordan Fuchs, the secretary of state’s top aide: “One thousand voters had their votes wiped out because other voters didn’t follow the rules. That’s not okay. The fact that Fair Fight and Dean Cox can’t agree with us on that is ridiculous,” Fuchs said.

The deputy said the secretary of state’s office would be working with county offices to make sure they are recording early and absentee ballots “in a timely manner.” Fuchs also hinted that outside groups pushing absentee ballots — both Democrats and Republicans are doing so — bear some responsibility.

“If a voter has voted early . . . they have already voted — even if a third-party group tries to convince them otherwise,” she said.

The ACLU of Georgia has volunteered to provide legal defenses for anyone charged with double voting in the June 9 primary. In response, the Georgia GOP has announced the formation of an “elections competence task force” that will “immediately prepare recommendations to preserve the integrity of Georgia’s elections.”

It seems as if trench warfare over the right to cast a ballot has arrived.