Democrats Say Republicans Are Stealing the Midterms. Are They Right?

Georgia is the center of a national GOP movement to make it harder to cast a ballot. But Democrats there say voter suppression is the least of their problems.

COLUMBUS, Ga.—Ed Harbison remembers Jim Crow. The segregated schools, the no-go theaters, the colored-only water fountains. The white supremacist siege of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was trapped inside, and Harbison was, too. The white folks telling his mother she couldn’t vote unless she could answer how many beans were in a jar, or how wet water was.

Harbison is now a Democratic state senator from Georgia, and the Deep South has changed radically in his 72 years on its soil. Sometimes, though, he reflects on how it hasn’t changed—like when he reflects on the high-profile race for governor pitting Stacey Abrams, a progressive African-American Democrat who used to run a voting rights nonprofit, against Brian Kemp, the conservative white Republican secretary of state who is mired in multiple voting rights controversies. Harbison is rooting for Abrams to become the first black woman governor of any American state, and Kemp’s efforts to purge voter rolls and challenge voter registrations in ways that disproportionately affect minorities bring back painful memories of the bad old days. “It’s a different time, but it feels like the same game plan,” Harbison told me after an Abrams rally at Columbus State University.

Georgia is at the epicenter of a national movement for stricter voting rules in Republican-controlled states, and its battles over the ballot have become a national story about race and power in the South. But while Harbison is concerned that Republicans may be disenfranchising some black voters, perhaps even enough to swing a too-close-to-call governor’s race to Kemp, he thinks far more black voters disenfranchise themselves, sitting out elections they suspect are pre-determined to ratify the white power structure’s status quo. He tells his constituents, especially young ones, about the blood that’s been spilled to secure their right to vote, but many of them don’t believe their vote will count.

“We need a fully operational electorate if we want things to change,” he says. “Too many people say: ‘Aw, what’s the use, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.’”

Jim Crow no longer rules Georgia, and despite media coverage that has made it sound like Bull Connor is patrolling the polls, the vast majority of Georgians who want to cast a vote this fall will be able to do so. The state has expansive online registration, early voting, and vote-by-mail; the bean-counting days are over. Kemp did spark a national uproar by suspending the registrations of 53,000 Georgians, mostly African-Americans, through an “exact match” system that flags even minor typos and missing hyphens, but those voters can still cast legal ballots if they show up to the polls with proper ID—and on Friday, a federal judge ordered Kemp to make sure that 3,000 of them flagged as non-citizens can vote if they prove their citizenship. Kemp has also culled more than 10 percent of the names on Georgia’s rolls since 2016, some through a “use it or lose it” rule that eliminates voters who don’t show up at the polls or respond to mailings for seven years. But Democrats have launched the largest voter protection operation in state history, and so far fears that hundreds of thousands of voters would be blocked at the polls seem wildly overblown.

Even Abrams, who constantly denounces Kemp as an architect of voter suppression, “doing everything in his power to rig the game in his favor,” makes it clear that she’s even more concerned about self-suppression in a climate of fear and confusion. “We lose elections not because people can’tvote,” she said at a rally last week at Valdosta State College, “but because they don’t know why they should vote.”

So far, minority turnout is shattering records for a midterm election, which is both a political problem for Kemp and a talking point in his defense against allegations of disenfranchisement. But Georgia has been at the vanguard of a new national push to create barriers to voting, a push justified by warnings of rampant voter fraud that seems to exist only in Republican imaginations. It was one of the first two states to try to adopt strict voter ID rules in 2006, and it has been among the most aggressive of the 24 states that have tightened access to the ballot in recent years. Ever since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, rolling back federal scrutiny of election rules in seven southern states with histories of discrimination, the trend in Georgia has been toward fewer polling places and more rigorous demands for documentation before ballots can be cast. Kemp even pursued investigations of several activist groups that register minority voters, including the New Georgia Project founded by Abrams herself.

Kemp is not the only Republican secretary of state presiding over his own bid for higher office. Kris Kobach, the driving force behind President Donald Trump’s short-lived voter fraud commission that failed to produce evidence of voter fraud, is running for governor of Kansas, while Jon Husted, who also aggressively purged his state’s voter rolls, is running for lieutenant governor of Ohio. But the combination of Kemp’s tight race against an outspoken African American voting activist along with a continuing flurry of lawsuits and other controversies have turned him into the symbolic leader of the Republican crusade for voting restrictions. Just this week, another federal judge sided with civil rights groups over Kemp to stop county officials from rejecting mail-in ballots with mismatched signatures, ruling they should err on the side of counting every vote. A recent report on the state’s restrictions by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice was titled: What’s the Matter with Georgia?

Kemp insists that nothing is the matter with Georgia. He dismisses the furor over the franchise as “ridiculous,” “a farce,” “a fabricated story” designed to fire up Abrams voters. He says the overwhelming majority of purged registrations were people who moved, died, or never existed; he told me one voter who didn’t make the cut gave his name as “Jesus” and address as “Heaven Street.” He said it’s ironic that Abrams is blaming him for the problems with mismatched registrations when “her own group couldn’t get people to fill out forms correctly,” and he emphasizes that county officials run the actual election. He’s a laconic guy with an easy drawl, but he’s furious that national reporters keep parachuting into Georgia to raise alarms about voter suppression and racial discrimination. He prefers to focus on his staunch check-every-box conservatism, and his opponent’s unusually liberal views for a statewide candidate in the South on issues like guns, taxes and immigration—as well as her support from out-of-state donors like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.

“This race isn’t about black and white,” he told me after a speech at a barbecue joint in rural Nahunta. “It’s about who’s going to put Georgia first, versus billionaire socialists from New York and California.”

Academic studies have suggested that the direct impact of vote suppression on vote totals tends to be modest, which may well be the case again here. But like interference in elections by foreign governments, a problem doesn’t have to swing an election to be a problem. Yes, anyone with a state-issued ID should be able to vote in Georgia, but it’s also true that low-income people of color are less likely to have drivers licenses or other forms of ID. And one thing that was clear after following Abrams and Kemp on dueling bus tours through rural southern Georgia was that no matter how many voters encounter problems at the polls, this race is very much about black and white. The predominantly black voters who came to see Abrams and the almost exclusively white voters who watched Kemp seemed to live in two parallel realities, one where black Georgians lament systemic injustice, the other where white Georgians believe race relations are fine. It’s no accident that Oprah Winfrey and former President Barack Obama were just in Georgia to help Abrams rally her base, or that Vice President Mike Pence just stumped with Kemp, with Trump coming to help on Sunday.

“This is a battle for the soul of our state,” Kemp tells his supporters.

“We can change Georgia and the South,” Abrams tells hers.

It feels like William Faulkner, was half right: The past is never dead, even if it actually is past.

***

Gwendolyn Thompson was in sixth grade when she integrated her elementary school in the town of Thomaston, too young to understand the hatred that was hurled at her every day. Why did white kids call her “darky” and worse? Why did they hug the opposite wall when she walked down the hall, as if she had a virulent disease? Thompson went on to build a good life in the Atlanta suburbs, raising three kids and adjudicating disability cases, enjoying the diversity of life in the home of Coca-Cola, CNN and the civil rights movement. But she would never forget the sting of racism, and she would always wonder what her older white colleagues were thinking but not saying about racial issues. When she returned to rural Thomaston a few years ago to care for her sick father, she found that her worst bully at school was running (unsuccessfully, it turned out) for probate judge. “It was such a kick in the gut,” Thompson recalls. “He used to spit in my food.”

I met Thompson in the pews of a packed Methodist church in her hometown in Georgia’s black belt, shortly before Abrams showed up to preach early voting. To Thompson, Abrams represents a glimmer of hope for a state where racism has outlived Jim Crow; she recounted how her son, an electrical engineer who was his firm’s first black employee, was assigned to train a younger and less qualified white man to be his boss. She sees voter suppression as the logical response of a ruling class in a fast-changing red state where minorities are on track to become the majority in the 2020s.

“They see us advancing, and they’re panicking,” she said. “They want to keep their feet on our necks.”

At a series of Abrams rallies in south Georgia, where crowds ranged from 60 percent to 90 percent black, her supporters repeatedly cited racial gaps in education, income, and policing as the facts of their daily lives. In the city of Albany, an early cradle of the civil rights movement, a 41-year-old social worker named Dedrick Thomas told me the wrenching advice he recently gave his teenage son: “If a cop says ‘Nigger, bark like a dog,’ you bark like a dog. I need you home alive.” In the agricultural town of Cuthbert in Randolph County, where local officials recently tried to shut down seven of nine polling places before backing down after a political firestorm, a 66-year-old retired teacher named Sandra Willis said she’s waited all her life for a governor who looked like her and cared about her.

“A lot of white folks still think we should be picking cotton,” she said. “They’re afraid for us to get a piece of what they’ve had for years.”

Abrams joked in Cuthbert that she doesn’t look like a typical Georgia politician: “I’m a little taller.” But she’s serious about her message of a new Georgia, with a government that looks out for everyone rather than a favored few, promoting the dynamism and tolerance that’s already associated with Atlanta while expanding Medicaid and investing in public education for ordinary people throughout the state. She talks about how she and her five siblings grew up poor, eating orange government cheese, and how she later racked up debt supporting her ailing parents. She tells a story about her first visit to the governor’s mansion for a ceremony honoring high school valedictorians, when a security guard blocked her at the gate and told her it was a private event. “I don’t remember meeting the governor,” she says. “I remember that man telling me I didn’t belong.”

Abrams portrays Kemp as an electoral version of that security guard, using his power to obstruct access to the levers of power. “He believes voter suppression is his path to victory,” she says. “He’s not new to it, but he’s true to it.” She uses the issue to rally her base, framing it as a test of whether Georgia will be a symbol of the Old or New South, urging crowds to fight back by voting. “Mr. Kemp knows how to count,” she told me in Albany. “He knows this is a changing state, and I’m building a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition. He’s demonstrated that he’s not interested in the evolution of our state. He intends to support those who remind him of himself.”

The rhetoric around the right to vote does get heated; it’s an emotional issue, with a lot of historical baggage. Voter fraud is exceedingly rare—a Brennan Center study found only 0.0001 percent of votes cast in 2016 resulted in investigations—so civil rights advocates are skeptical that it’s the real motivation for the bureaucratic squeeze on eligibility in Republican states. “Jim Crow with a billy club has been changed to James Crow Esquire with a briefcase,” says Richard Rose, the head of the Atlanta NAACP. Andrea Young, the director of the Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, is the daughter of the legendary activist Andrew Young, and she feels like she’s constantly trying to plug a legal dam her father’s generation built.

“It’s just a nonstop onslaught, and it’s really discouraging,” she says. “There’s so much concern out there that the system is rigged, and it’s not an irrational fear.”

The danger for Abrams is that this kind of talk will discourage her voters, and she tries to balance her attacks on Kemp for rigging the system with assurances that showing up to vote can be the best revenge: “Voter suppression isn’t a bug in the system. It’s the system! But we can beat the system.” And: “Make them tell you no. Don’t tell yourself no.” And: “Disenfranchisement works not just by taking your vote but by taking your spirit. We need to spirit up!” She often notes that Kemp was caught on tape expressing concern that he could lose if minorities exercise their right to vote in large numbers, which would be a banal observation about turnout for a Georgia Republican who didn’t happen to be overseeing elections as secretary of state.

Blacks are 32 percent of registered voters in Georgia, but in 2014 barely a third of them turned out, lagging far behind whites, and Abrams needs them to spirit up. The mantra from the civil rights community has been that if voting didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be so many schemes to stop it—and so far, blacks are on pace to more than double their early vote from 2014. But I also heard a lot of dispirited grousing about rumors that Georgia’s antiquated electronic voting machines, which Kemp has resisted updating or supplementing with a paper trail, have been flipping D votes to R. “They can make them machines do what they want to do,” said Claudette Fagan, a 75-year-old retired nanny from Thomaston. “It’s like Jim Crow all over again.”

That kind of fatalism can be deadly to Democrats; depressed black turnout in 2016 helped swing Florida and key Rust Belt states from Obama to Trump. Dexter Sharper, an African-American state representative who came to support Abrams in Valdosta, says he’s tired of the victim mentality that blames voter suppression for predictable defeats instead of doing the hard work necessary to win an uphill battle.

“I hear so many excuses: ‘It’s a Republican state, everything is rigged, nothing’s gonna change,’ Sharper said. “OK, sure, blacks have to work harder to get ahead. So work harder!”

***

Carl Fortson doesn’t want to hear about how hard blacks have to work, how hard it is for blacks to vote, or how hard blacks have it in general. “I’m tired of all that racial mumbo-jumbo,” the 69-year-old retired building official told me at a Kemp rally behind the Carrolls Sausage country store in Ashburn. I asked him whether the history of mistreatment of blacks in the South affected his thinking at all, and he scoffed that the history was just that.

“Have you ever owned a slave?” Fortson asked. “I haven’t.”

I attended a half-dozen of Kemp’s events in southern Georgia, and I never saw more than one black face in the crowd, although several Indian-Americans did attend a rally in Kingsland near the Florida border, including one local hotel owner on stage. None of the white people I met thought racism was a big problem in Georgia, and all of them thought the controversy over voting rights was fake news ginned up to help Abrams. “This ain’t the 1950s,” said Colt Ford, a 27-year-old taxidermist who showed up to a Kemp event in rural Nashville in camouflage. “The media pursues the racial divide, but everyone around here gets along.” Josh Taylor, the police chief in Enigma, agreed racial tensions are overblown, and said he’s never seen a Black Lives Matters protester in his tiny town: “It’s all smoke and mirrors.”

Chuck Lanham, a 77-year-old retiree who wore a Make America Great Again cap to the Kingsland rally, said Obama nearly ruined race relations in this country, but blacks and whites in his neighborhood still get along fine: “They don’t call me cracker and I don’t call them darky.” He did complain that Abrams wants to take down some prominent Confederate statues; he says they’re part of the South’s heritage, and he doesn’t believe blacks are truly offended by them. “You never heard about this stuff until ten years ago,” Lanham said. “People just need something to complain about.”

This racial disconnect seems just as intense on ballot issues. Gayle Henningfeld, a 72-year-old retired property manager who watched Kemp speak in the cotton town of Cordele—at a history museum where the photographs were all of white faces—said the entire fight over voter suppression was a manufactured racial controversy. “Give me a break: If they can prove who they are, they’ll get to vote,” she said. “Isn’t it funny that they can find an ID to get cigarettes and alcohol?”

“And EBT!” added her friend Beth Slocum, using shorthand for food stamps.

The Kemp supporters I met consistently described the election in ideological terms, a battle of capitalism against socialism, business against government, makers against takers. “We’ve all worked hard for what we have, and we want to keep it,” Fortson told me. “Abrams wants to take it away to support people who don’t work.” Lace Futch, an 80-year-old Atkinson County commissioner who wore overalls to hear Kemp speak in his Trump-loving corner of the state, described the race as “a choice between solvency and bankruptcy, between a conservative and a nut.”

But Futch acknowledged that there’s a tribal shirts-and-skins element to politics these days, and that Abrams doesn’t wear his team’s jersey. He said the blacks who blame vote suppression for their lack of power in Georgia ought to blame demographics and basic math: “They’re only 25 percent of the state! Of course they’re gonna be outvoted! That’s the name of the game!”

When I asked Kemp about the whiteness of his base at a Nahunta barbecue joint, he said he rejected my premise, and mentioned a recent “diversity press conference” and “diversity call center night” featuring non-white supporters. He told me his pro-business message is much better for minorities than the big-government Abrams message, “if they’re really willing to be open-minded and listen.” But he’s polling in the low single digits among blacks, and his leaked comments that he could lose the election if they come out to vote in huge numbers were clearly correct. On the trail, Kemp warns his supporters that Democrats are hoping to reach presidential-year turnout in an off-year election, and that he believes they’ll do it.

“They’re motivated,” he said in Ashburn. “We’re literally fighting the rest of the country, and they’re counting on you to be complacent. It’s us against them.”

***

Jimmy Lockett got out of jail on Father’s Day, finally clean after 30 years of addiction. But he had no job, no place to live, and no ID, which made it even harder to find a job or a place to live. “I felt like an alien, like E.T.—except at least E.T. could phone home,” Lockett told me before the Abrams rally in Columbus. He didn’t even have a birth certificate, so he couldn’t get a Georgia ID, until a non-profit called Spread the Vote tracked it down; Lockett had always thought he was a Louisiana native, but it turned out he was born in Tennessee. He’s now working at IHOP, while serving as a peer mentor for the formerly incarcerated with a group called Don’t Count Me Out. He also voted last week for the first time, and persuaded a friend to join him. “It’s part of taking my life back and rejoining society,” he says.

Spread the Vote has helped more than 500 Georgians get IDs over the last year, and state director Fallon McClure says watching Lockett vote was a highlight. “The smile on his face was everything,” she told me. But she says the ID bureaucracy is often absurdly unwieldy; for example, the vital statistics office where applicants can track down their records requires ID at the entrance. She sees these obstacles as outgrowths of white privilege, just like Georgia’s efforts to limit early voting on Sundays when black churches run Souls to the Polls, or various county efforts to close polling stations accessible by public transit. McClure is a 31-year-old attorney, but when she goes to court, she invariably gets mistaken for a defendant even though she wears a suit and carries a briefcase. “I even wear glasses to look more like a lawyer,” she says with a rueful chuckle. “Some things don’t seem to change.”

In the 2013 decision that rolled back the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that decades of racial progress—including the election of an African-American president—had eliminated the need for “extraordinary measures” by the federal government to ensure unbiased state elections in states like Georgia. There is no doubt that, as Roberts wrote, “our country has changed,” but race has always been at the heart of the American story, and there is obviously a stark divide over how much it has changed. The ballot is still a battlefield, not only in Georgia but North Dakota, where voter ID laws that require street addresses seem targeted at Native Americans who live on reservations without them, or Kansas, where white officials in majority-Hispanic Dodge City moved the only polling place out of town, or 21 other states where Republican officials have prioritized eliminating voter fraud over maximizing voter participation. Voting is supposed to be how Americans resolve differences—leaders of both parties chide uncivil protesters who harass politicians in restaurants—but the drumbeat of stories about voting restrictions inevitably reduces confidence that voting can make a difference.

The current leader of the Republican Party, to put it mildly, has never been eager to bridge racial divisions. President Trump got his start in politics by questioning his black predecessor’s citizenship, and he loves riling up his white supporters with culture-war attacks on prominent African-Americans like LeBron James, Don Lemon, Maxine Waters, NFL players who protest police brutality, and even the civil rights hero John Lewis, who was also inside the First Baptist Church in Montgomery during the siege. Trump has tweeted that Abrams is “crime-loving” and “totally unqualified,” an odd criticism to make of a Yale Law School graduate who served as the Democratic leader in the state assembly. And many GOP politicians are fashioning themselves in his politically incorrect image; in his primary, Kemp ran an ad suggesting he might use his own pickup truck to round up illegal immigrants in Georgia, which helped earn him Trump’s endorsement.

The midterms will help determine whether Republicans pay any price for pushing these envelopes, which will help determine whether the envelope-pushing continues. And in some states, the ballot itself will be on the ballot; there are an unprecedented number of voter referendums this year designed to expand voting rights and make the eligibility process easier, including a measure restoring the right of felons to vote after completing their sentence in Florida, and provisions creating automatic registration in Nevada, Michigan and Maryland. “You could see a really transformative backlash against this multi-year effort to restrict democracy,” says Wendy Weiser, who runs the Brennan Center’s voting rights program.

In Georgia, voters are voting, and turnout was up 146 percent over 2014 through Wednesday, with more than a third of the early vote from first-time voters. The Democratic voter hotline is getting about 300 calls a day, and some long lines discouraged voters in the first few days—in part because counties closed more than 200 polling stations on Kemp’s watch—but there have not been widespread new reports of irregularities that would indicate Kemp’s thumb on the scale.

“I don’t think they can steal this one,” a 64-year-old equipment operator named Hildredge Bush told me before the Abrams speech at the Thomaston church. Bush is a Navy veteran with a political science degree, and he’s felt all his life that the racist vestiges of Jim Crow have held him back from reaching his full potential. But now he believes the forces of progress are on the march. At least he hopes so.

“We shall overcome the suppression, and we shall overcome it with politics,” he said. “There really isn’t any other way to overcome.”

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