Jim Crow? Jim Eagle? What the Georgia Election is Not

Voter suppression is a strategy used to systemically discourage and prevent citizens from specific groups from voting. There are a range of tactics used in the strategy of voter suppression, from making it unreasonably difficult to vote to intimidation and violence. Examples of voter suppression in the US past associated with the system of Jim Crow were literacy tests and poll taxes. These were judged discriminatory and abolished along with the Jim Crow system in 1960s. Rules emplaced to ensure a genuine election as specified by international and human rights norms and standards that do not systemically discourage or prevent citizens from a specific group from voting are not examples of voter suppression. There is nothing in recent George election reform law that can reasonably be called voter suppression.

When shit shows like the 2020 elections occur in developing countries, observers suspect electoral manipulation and widespread voter fraud. When several states temporarily shut down the counting of ballots only to reemerge a few hours later with flipped tallies, reasonable people are suspicious. When companies that make the voting machines refuse to let state officials who use those machines from knowing how the machines work, reasonable people are suspicious. When the establishment media that carried water for one candidate tells the suspicious that their suspicions are unreasonable, reasonable people remain suspicious. And when that same media and the corporate power they represent characterize legislation strengthening election integrity as the “New Jim Crow,” reasonable people may be convinced that the fix is in.

Within days of Georgia governor Brian Kemp signing legislation passed by the Georgia legislature along party lines, major corporations (Coca-Cola, Delta, ViacomCBS, among others) condemned the bill as racist. Major League Baseball relocated its All-Star Game from Georgia to Colorado. President Biden, adding to a decades long list of idiotic comments, exclaimed that the law made Jim Crow look like “Jim Eagle” and encouraged large corporations to wage war against popularly-elected republican government. Remarkably, the President of the United States acted as if he were president of Corporate America and not the leader of a sovereign nation that constitutionally guarantees to its citizens a republican form of government.

The betrayal of Democrats to one side, does the law reestablish the voter suppression regime of the Jim Crow era? Hardly. If anything, it doesn’t go far enough. Georgia legislators debated and then rightly rejected banning Sunday voting. But they also rejected getting rid of no-excuse absentee voting. Moreover, the machines are staying. However, by adding an ID requirement for absentee voting, the core problem with no-excuse absentee voting presented has been ameliorated considerably (in theory, at least). The law doesn’t get rid of drop boxes, which were never authorized in law in the first place, but codifies their use; the boxes must be located inside the clerk’s office or inside a voting location, accessible during early voting hours and closed when early voting period ends. Chain of custody issues have been partly resolves with the reforms (again, in theory).

Requiring voter ID to vote by mail is perhaps the most controversial reform. (Why ID was required for in person voting and not for mail-in voting frankly astounds me.) The voter will have to provide a driver’s license number or a state ID number. If the voter does not have either of these, they may submit a photocopy of a different form of valid identification, such as their Social Security number. (This is typical in electoral integrity rules throughout Europe.) The county registrar’s office may issue free state ID cards. This reform replaces the disastrous signature verification process. The complaint is that voter ID requirements disproportionately affect black and other minority voters. Critics point to the proportion of rejected ballots in the June 2020 primary. Yet they don’t mention the near absence of ballot rejection in November 2020 general election. As for difficulty obtaining ID, that’s a problem to be addressed providing every citizen with a valid ID, not by making it easier for individuals to cast fraudulent votes.

(It should be emphasized that lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud is a reason neither to weaken election integrity or fail to tighten integrity. As noted, genuine elections are internationally recognized as a human right. If there is an opportunity for fraud to occur, reforms should be emplaced to limit that opportunity.)

Absentee ballots must be requested 78 days before and received 11 days before the election. No unsolicited ballot requests may be sent to voters. Only requested ballots will be sent. The law does not, however, prevent third parties from sending out ballot request forms as long as the source is clearly identified. This reform is designed to curtail the practice known as “ballot harvesting,” which can be used to pressure voters into voting or casting votes for particular candidates. While the postal voting period has been shortened, the bill expands early voting. There must be at least 17 days of early voting, which begins 22 days before election day, including at least two Saturdays, and the polls must open at least by 9 am and close no earlier than 5 pm with the option of operating from 7 am to 7 pm.

Another contentious provision in the law is Georgia’s ban on giving voters food or drink while waiting in line at the polls. The press reports it as ban on water, but the law specifically refers to drink. Such provisions, which exist in other states, forbid people from handing out food and drink because these are apparent acts of charity used to influence voters. This is the well-known problem of “treating,” where food and drinks and other items are gifts. It’s a form of political corruption. Prohibiting this follows the same logic of not having campaign paraphernalia within a certain distance from the polls. The law clearly states that poll workers can make available to voters self-service water as long as it is not provided in a way that could potentially influence votes. The law does not prevent a person from bringing his own food and drink for personal use.

The media makes a point of long lines and waiting times as reasons for the necessity of providing voters with food and drink. The new law is designed to reduce lines and waiting times. The law requires counties to create additional precincts based on previous numbers and times (2,000 voters or over an hour of wait time), as well as provide additional resources to increase the ease and speed process. There are also rules to reduce confusion and provisional voting. If a voter shows up at the wrong location, they are directed to the correct location and discouraged from casting a provisional ballot, which have a high rejection rate. They are still allowed to cast a provisional ballot is they are unable to make it to the correct location.

Finally, the law contains provisions that establish a more nonpartisan election board, allow counties to report results in a more timely fashion, and provide greater protection against illegal behavior and voter intimidation. The new election board will no longer be chaired by the secretary of state, which is a partisan office, but by a non-partisan chair. The processing but not tabulating of absentee ballots must begin 15 days before the election so they are ready for tabulation. Counties must report returns for absentee ballots by 5 pm the day after election day and report the number of early voting and absentee ballots by 10 pm on election day. The law calls for the establishment of a hotline to report voter intimidation and illegal activity. Although the law makes it easier to challenge a voter’s qualifications to cast a ballot (the illegal activity piece), the state board is permitted to establish procedures to restrict illegitimate challenges so as not to burden legitimate voters.

Rules emplaced to ensure a genuine election are fundamental to meeting international and human rights norms and standards. These rules must not systemically discourage or prevent citizens from a specific group (class, race, sex) from voting. As stated at the outset, there is nothing in recent George election reform law that can reasonably be called voter suppression. The range of tactics used in voter suppression are not apparent in the legislation. The hyperbolic comparisons of the law to Jim Crow era rules is really about weakening electoral integrity by smearing reformers and reforms with racist motive and intent.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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