The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New Georgia legislation would curb ‘souls to the polls’

A rally in Savannah, Ga., for then-Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael G. Warnock ahead of the January runoff. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Georgia Republicans took high-profile losses in the last election cycle. An increase in turnout among Democrats and voters of color sent Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate and put the state in President Biden’s column in November. But Republicans still control state government, and now they are using that power to try to drastically limit voting procedures that were in place when they incurred those losses, including by apparently curbing an institution among Black churchgoers.

State Rep. Barry Fleming (R), chair of a newly created Special Committee on Election Integrity, introduced a bill last week that aimed to eliminate all early voting on Sundays — thus eliminating “souls to the polls,” a get-out-the-vote initiative popular with the state’s predominantly Black churches. That’s among many other provisions. From Georgia Public Broadcasting:

Section 12 of the bill would provide “uniformity” to the three-week early voting period, Fleming said, requiring all counties to hold early voting from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for three weeks before the election, plus a mandatory 9-to-5 period of voting the second Saturday before the election. It would allow counties to extend hours to 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., but would prohibit counties from holding early voting any other days — including Sunday voting popular in larger metro counties and a high turnout day for Black voters that hold “souls to the polls” events.
Like other bills making their way through the GOP-controlled legislature, there would be a new photo ID requirement for absentee ballots.

“We try as best we can to make sure that our voting is secure, and that someone’s vote cannot be stolen,” Fleming said in a hearing last week, explaining the need for the new law. “Our due diligence in this legislature [is] to constantly update our laws to try to protect the sanctity of the vote.” (There is no evidence that “stolen” votes had an effect on the 2020 election.)

Similar efforts by North Carolina Republicans were struck down by federal courts deciding that the real impetus behind these restrictions was disenfranchising Black voters more so than combating voter fraud. But voting rights activists in Georgia are still concerned.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre (D), dean of the Georgia House, also spoke at the hearing and argued that significantly decreasing early-voting options on the weekends would limit one of the voting options that people of color use most. According to Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group in Georgia, Black voters make up about 30 percent of Georgia’s electorate, but made up nearly 37 percent of Sunday voters in 2020.

“I know when you cut back on the early voting, it disproportionately affects and harms voters of color who have the highest rate of weekend voting,” Smyre said. “And Section 12 of the bill, when you eliminate some form of Saturday and Sunday voting, it appears to me once I looked at it and kind of added it up, it looks like you can almost cut 108 or 110 total available hours of early voting. And to me that will have a disproportionate effect on segments of our community.”

Republicans in other states have made efforts to make voting on Sundays difficult and have attracted criticism from Black voters. In 2013, North Carolina Republicans eliminated Sunday voting — the state’s Souls to the Polls program — before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down the move for targeting Black voters “with almost surgical precision.” But some aspects of the bill remained in place and could have had an effect on Black voter turnout.

Black voter turnout in 2016 and 2020 was lower in North Carolina than in 2008 and 2012, said Asher Hildebrand, a professor at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy. But he said that multiple factors could have influenced that, including the fact that Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, was no longer on the ballot.

Following Democratic victories in the 2020 election, state Republican lawmakers across the country are proposing new laws that would restrict access to voting. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

“The fact of the matter is it’s hard to draw direct causal links because there are so many other factors at play, but that doesn’t mean that links don’t exist,” Hildebrand said. “And it certainly seems that North Carolina has had some unique declines (in Black voter turnout) that some states haven’t experienced.”

In North Carolina, individual counties now have more control over voting procedures, making it more difficult in some places in the state than others to vote. And other laws that voting rights activists argue are designed to make it more difficult for Black Americans to vote — like a law requiring voters to have photo identification — are still on the books.

For some Black Georgia voters, measures to get rid of voter outreach efforts that are popular with Black Christians feel like a direct attack on the Black church — a group that was fundamental in helping elect Biden in the historically conservative state and send two Democrats to the Senate.

The Rev. Timothy McDonald III told the Associated Press that Republicans are specifically trying to suppress the “power” that the Black church has shown in recent elections. But the pastor of Atlanta’s First Iconium Baptist Church, which participated in Souls to the Polls, predicted that Republican attacks on the politics of the Black church will ultimately be unsuccessful because of the community’s “ability to adapt.”

“The reason we have survived so much as a people in this country certainly has to do with the Black church and our ability to adapt,” he said. “If we can adapt to slavery, if we can adapt to lynching, if we can adapt to Jim Crow, we can adapt to a group of Republicans trying to cause us not to be able to vote.”

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, more than 100 bills have been introduced in nearly 30 states aimed at restricting voting rights in the 2021 legislative session. And many of those states are completely under GOP control, meaning that legislation is likely to pass in many cases. That could present real obstacles for those hoping to defeat those laws. But presenting obstacles does not necessarily guarantee defeat. And one of the conflicts that this political moment appears to have exacerbated is the cultural war between Republicans and the Black church.