I’m starting a series in which I focus on voter suppression in the USA. I want to focus on actual registration for elective offices and not primary elections. I will preface my comments by saying that both parties have a need to clean up their primary and caucus rules to open up those processes to additional voters. Closed primaries and selective invites are on the wrong side of history – it’s time to open things up. It’s also time to consolidate elections. Voting outside the federal election cycle – that big day in November – depresses voter turnout and typically benefits an interest group’s interests at the cost of hearing a fuller response to the measure on the ballot. As much as I may sympathize with an interest group that benefits from low voter turnout, I would rather see high turnout and that interest group find a way to inspire more people to vote for it than just its core consittuency.
That being said, I want to talk about voter suppression as part of a national or state party move to retain power by preventing opposition voters from being able to vote.
I start at the Democratic Party. Searching for Democratic Party voter suppression turned up the above criticisms of closed primaries in some states and off-cycle elections and how some Democratic Party-allied interest groups support them. I did not find any recent articles on statewide or national efforts to suppress or turn away voters. I did find an article on a recent case in Georgia about the removal of over 500,000 voters from the rolls in that state and how it was based on a law passed by Democrats.
Now, to read about that case at the webpage of the Georgia Secretary of State, there is zero context on *when* the Democrats passed that law. Neither is there any context on how long Republicans have been in power and themselves made no effort to remove the law. The National Review article criticizing the Democrats’ challenge to the voter suppression in Georgia pointed out that the daughter of then-Georgia Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp was herself not able to vote because of the Georgia election laws. The argument is that Georgia has a tight process, there is no racial bias in it, and that such a process works for the state of Georgia.
So let’s look at the history of that law as well as how it violates the 1993 National Voting Rights Act and how a Republican-dominated Supreme Court is able to back up the state law over the national one.
We’ll start with party history in Georgia. When looking at party control of the legislature and governor’s office, Republicans have been in control of the legislature since 2003 and the governor’s office since 2005. Democratic Party control extends back all the way to before the Civil War, with an exception for Reconstruction. But the state’s party allegiance on a national level shifted in 1964 as they backed the Goldwater campaign over LBJ. Although Goldwater himself was a member of the NAACP, he had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that’s the key in this puzzle. The same political cliques that had controlled the state of Georgia since before the Civil War with the exception of Reconstruction did not want to see Reconstruction happen again. Their power derived from controlling access to the ballot and they were prepared to fight in court to keep their Jim Crow laws on the books.
In 1968, Georgia went even further down the segregationist path to support George Wallace for president. In 1972, the state went for Nixon. In 1976 and 1980, it was the home state for Jimmy Carter, but from 1984 on with the exception of Clinton’s run in 1992, Georgia has gone Republican in national voting, even while supporting Democrats in most state offices. Starting in the 1990s, however, Republicans start to arrive more and more in state offices until 2005, when they ran things across the board.
So what kind of Democrats were in power until 2002/2005 and why did they vanish from state offices? You can see evidence in the state flag of Georgia. In 1956, in the wake of the Brown school desegregation ruling, Georgia State Senator Jefferson Lee Davis co-sponsored a bill to change the state flag from one that featured blue, white, and red bars to one that had the state seal of Georgia on a blue bar on the left and the Confederate Battle Flag of the Army of Virginia where the red and white bars used to be. I bring up the name of the legislator because the name itself is documentation of the mindset of the time. The change in the flag was symbolic and part and parcel of a campaign to preserve segregation in the state. The segregationists were digging in for a protracted fight against federal requirements to end discrimination on racial lines.
After 1956, as segregation became a dirtier and dirtier word in national discussions, people tried to paper over the reasoning behind the flag, saying it was to honor Confederate soldiers. Even that reasoning is weak in light of how the Confederacy was militarily opposed to the United States and fought to preserve the institution of slavery. Honor that movement? Respect for soldiers and their memories can be done in museums and cemeteries – and if you think that this ties into Confederate statues, you are correct. These things came up to rally opposition to desegregation and racial equality.
Those Democrats that passed voter purging laws, referenced by the Secretary of State of Georgia? Those were segregationists. All through the 1970s, the segregationists kept a hold on the state party organs in and through the Democratic Party while supporting Republicans in national party politics. This was part of the Republican “Southern Strategy”, to court pro-segregationist voters in Southern states in order to capture the highest national office, that of the Presidency, with an eye towards how that office influences the makeup of the Supreme Court. To be sure, that’s the goal of the Democratic Party, as well, but the Democratic Party is trying to capture that office without appealing to pro-segregationist voters.
Keep in mind that ending segregation was never a matter of segregationists shrugging their shoulders and going home after LBJ saw through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Ending segregation was a matter of using those federal laws to challenge state laws in order to provide true freedom and equality for people historically suppressed because of their race. The Dallas school district was still segregated in 1972, when they claimed to have ended segregation by allowing students from a single Blacks-only elementary school to apply to attend classes in a distant Whites-only elementary. Georgia was no different. Anyone who thinks that the Civil Rights movement ended in the 1960s is gravely mistaken. The fight continues.
As the Georgia Democratic Party started to catch up with the rest of the nation in putting forward Black candidates such as Andrew Young and starting to take an active interest in repealing Jim Crow legislation in the state starting in the 1970s, we can see the erosion of that party’s control in the state houses. Keep in mind that this is still a state where Whites are the dominant political force. They became that way because of laws that made it difficult for Blacks to vote, strengthened by laws that then removed voters for failing to vote. When the Democrats started to challenge the laws of their political legacy, the segregationists defected to the Republican Party, which was welcoming to the idea of continuing those segregationist laws.
There was a sharp cutover after 1993 – that’s when the US Congress passed the National Voting Rights Act (NVRA) that made it illegal to purge voters for not voting, among other things. After 1993, Georgia’s state offices and senate representation looks much, much redder. The Whites who depended upon suppressing Black votes to retain segregation-friendly power dug in to protect those laws, and it was the Republican Party that afforded them that redoubt.
I’ll note that I see a similar seismic shift in Texas politics around the same time. It’s all red, all the time, after 1993 in Texas.
When the Georgia legislature finally removed the Confederate battle flag in 2001, that ties in directly with the final shift in state politics: Republicans took the legislature in 2003 and the governorship in 2005 and have held all three for the last 15 years. Basically, the segregationists washed away all their connections to the Democratic Party and ensconced themselves in the Republican Party. They were the same opponents of civil rights and racial equality, but they were no longer welcome in the Democratic Party.
And that’s why the law passed by the Democrats back in Jim Crow days was never taken from the books – the segregationists were able to block those efforts. When they could no longer do so as Democrats, they did so as Republicans.
There is zero mention in the National Review article or the Georgia Secretary of State page about how the voting purge law in Georgia violates the NVRA. Nor is there mention of how the State of Georgia fought to retain that voter purge law in the face of a legal challenge.
And yes, the voter purge law is so wide-reaching that it does take in some Whites in that dragnet. But when the targets of the purges are over 90% Black, one has to question if the law is truly race-neutral in its impact. Moreover, the methods used to establish the targets of the voter purges are themselves racially biased.
The State of Georgia has the following rules for voter purging:
How a registration becomes subject to cancellation:
A registered voter files a change of address request with the U.S. Postal Service or
Official election mail is returned undeliverable or
A person has no contact with elections officials for three years. Contact can be in the form of voting in any election or primary, signing a petition, updating voter registration, or renewing or changing a driver’s license.
Not responding to a confirmation letter mailed by the county voter registrar.
Having no contact with voter registration for two additional general elections, meaning not voting in any election or primary, signing a petition, updating voter registration or renewing or changing a driver’s license.
Failing to respond within 30 days of the notice which they are being sent by either
a. returning the attached postage-paid postcard they will receive or
b. updating their registration
1. on registertovote.sos.ga.gov
2. smartphone app, or
3. visiting their county voter registrar’s office.
Now, federal law stipulates that re-registration is NOT required if a person moves within the county. It also stipulates that failure to vote may NOT be used as a criteria to maintain voter databases. So that “a person has no contact with elections officials for three years” is itself a violation of the NVRA. It’s also timed to not include the last presidential election cycle, which guarantees a huge number of potential candidates for purging.
Step 2 is “not responding to a confirmation letter.” Politicians know how to send letters that can’t be ignored: our mailboxes are full of oversized, colored cardstocks plastered with slick advertising in simple language. The Georgia confirmation letter violates every one of those principles of mass marketing, like it’s designed to be thrown away or not noticed.
Step 3 is an extension of the illegal “they didn’t vote” criteria.
Step 4 is another postcard designed to be ignored.
So when these postcards go out to an overwhelmingly Black population, it’s setting them up for failure. Because of the multiple steps, defenders of the measures will argue the virtues of each step individually, rather than take the steps in their totality and attempt to defend a process that targeted over 500,000 mostly-Black voters and stripped them of their votes, having the nerve to put the blame on the victim in this case.
The fact is that these voters were not lost in terms of tax payments or court summons processes: somehow, the people who had unverifiable addresses for voting purposes were exactly where they needed to be to pay taxes or to get called to court. Getting back to direct mail marketing technology, those people never stopped getting targeted mailings from an industry that has easily-replicable methods of address verification. That industry makes its money off of knowing exactly where everyone is, all the time. The politicians sending out the postcards rely on that targeting when it’s time to send out their election fliers, but they seem to be totally ignorant when it comes to making sure Blacks are able to vote.
It’s sad to state that the Republican Party in Georgia is a refuge for die-hard segregationists and white supremacists. It’s sad to state that the Republican Party in Georgia has targeted Blacks to remove them from the voter rolls. It’s sad to state that the Republican Party in Georgia continues the horrific legacy of racial inequality. It is sad, but true.
And what is sadder still, the Republican Party in Georgia is not “one bad apple”. It is representative of other state Republican Parties and the national party organization as a whole.
I’ll end with a 1981 quote from Georgia native and former national Republican strategist, Lee Atwater. I quote him in full, even when he uses unutterable words.
Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now you don’t have to do that. All that you need to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues that he’s campaigned on since 1964, and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.
Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
Atwater: Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger”. By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger”. So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the back-burner.