The tableau of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signing a new elections law said it all: six White legislators flanking the Republican governor, his pen poised above a gleaming wood table. Behind them, a painting of the white-columned Callaway Plantation.
Not shown, either: Black state legislator Park Cannon, arrested by White state troopers after she knocked repeatedly to gain entrance to the bill-signing. Among other things, the new law makes it a crime — yes, a crime — to provide water or food to people waiting in line to vote.
Welcome to 2021, where Republicans have embarked on a national effort to suppress the vote at all costs. And, not to avoid the obvious, to suppress Black votes, because those ballots would not be cast to Republican advantage.
“Un-American,” President Biden called it at his news conference Thursday, and he was right. “It’s sick. It’s sick.”
It’s also a product of GOP desperation to retain or regain power. Alice O’Lenick, chairwoman of the Gwinnett County election board, didn’t mince words about the need to tighten up voting rules in Georgia. After the “terrible elections cycle” in 2020, when Republicans lost both Georgia Senate seats and Biden won the state’s electoral votes, “I’m like a dog with a bone,” she told fellow Republicans in January. “I will not let them end this session without changing some of these laws. They don’t have to change all of them, but they’ve got to change the major parts so that we at least have a shot at winning.”
Conservative lawyer Michael Carvin, representing the Republican National Committee in an Arizona voting rights case before the Supreme Court earlier this month, was equally transparent — and transactional. When Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked why the RNC was involved in the case — in particular, why it had an interest in preventing people from having their votes counted if they were cast in the wrong precinct — Carvin didn’t bother to pretend this was about anything other than partisan politics.
“Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” he said. “Politics is a zero-sum game, and every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretations of [the Voting Rights Act] hurts us.”
A shot at winning. Politics as zero-sum game. Proof positive that this isn’t about the phantom menace of voter fraud. It’s about making it as hard as possible for voters who aren’t inclined in Republicans’ favor to have their ballots cast or counted. You can debate whether the impact on voters of color is an intended feature or a problematic bug, but it’s an undeniable reality.
The new Georgia law stands as Exhibit A in the 2021 campaign to curtail voting rights but will not be the year’s last. Its final form was not quite as repulsive as initial proposals. Provisions to end early voting on Sundays — which happen to be “souls to the polls” turnout days at Black churches — were dropped. Weekend voting hours were expanded instead.
However, the final product makes it overall harder to vote, not easier. It increases voter identification requirements for casting absentee ballots. It limits the use of mobile polling places and drop boxes (they can’t be located outdoors or available outside regular business hours). It bars state officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballots to voters and likewise prevents voter mobilization groups from sending absentee ballot applications to voters or returning their completed applications. It compresses the time period before runoff elections and, in doing so, eliminates guaranteed weekend early voting hours in such elections.
Most astonishingly, the new law criminalizes giving food or drink to those waiting in line to vote, on the apparent theory that this could somehow corruptly influence voters. Here’s an idea: Make it a crime to force people to wait in long lines to exercise their right to vote.
As a lawsuit filed by voting rights groups to challenge the Georgia law noted, polling places in majority-Black neighborhoods make up just one-third of Georgia polling places, but accounted for two-thirds of those that had to stay open late to accommodate long lines in the June primary. According to the suit, “the average wait time in Georgia after polls were scheduled to close was six minutes in neighborhoods that were at least 90% white, and 51 minutes in places that were at least 90% nonwhite.”
Which underscores the point: These restrictions operate to the particular detriment of Black voters, who tend to have less access to acceptable forms of identification, have jobs that make it harder to get to the polls during business hours and live in neighborhoods with fewer polling places and longer lines.
Perhaps these restrictions, and their discriminatory impact, could be justified if there were a need to impose them. There isn’t. Not a clear one, not any one at all, except for the baseless frenzy over stolen elections and widespread fraud whipped up by Donald Trump and his allies. As Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — now the named defendant in the lawsuit — said in January, the state conducted “safe, secure, honest elections” during the 2020 cycle.
This small-minded new law is a dangerous cure in search of a nonexistent problem — unless the problem is that the more people get to cast their votes, the more Republicans lose.