Georgia is now ground zero for voter suppression. The state’s largest newspaper summed up the crisis on the morning after Tuesday’s primary election in the state descended into chaos: “‘Complete Meltdown.’” Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, ticked off the evidence of “a system that is failing” voters: “malfunctioning machines, long lines, polling sites that opened late and insufficient numbers of back up paper ballots in Georgia.”
LaTosha Brown, the cofounder of the group Black Voters Matter, tweeted early Wednesday morning: “Georgia’s Elections were a HOT MESS! Last voter walked out at 12:37am in Union City.” Brown and her group provided support for voters who waited five or more hours to cast ballots in predominantly African American precincts, while noting that in suburban precincts there were fewer lines. Referring to the stark disparity, she said, “I come over to this [suburban polling place], and white folks are strolling in. On my side of town, we brought stadium chairs.”
LeBron James went to the heart of the matter, observing amid Tuesday’s troubles, “Everyone talking about ‘How do we fix this?’ They say, ‘Go out and vote’? What about asking if how we vote is also structurally racist?”
The Georgia primary was such a fiasco, such an overwhelming affront to the basic premises of American democracy, that it cries out for a response. But that response cannot begin or end in one state. If Wisconsin’s chaotic April 7 election—when voters who did not receive absentee ballots were forced to wait in line for hours during a peak period of the pandemic to cast in-person ballots—was an early wake-up call for November, then Georgia’s chaotic June 9 elections two months later must be understood as an urgent demand to “get up and get going!”
Tuesday’s crisis in the state manifested itself as the polls opened and extended throughout a day that would eventually lead former Missouri senator Claire McCaskill to ask, “What the hell is going on in Georgia today? Four hours to vote? In a primary? Machines down, people being turned away, some locations with no machines? This is a three alarm fire for democracy. Someone should be held accountable.”
Accountability is vital. Months into the coronavirus pandemic, and after two delays in Georgia’s primary election date, Georgia officials should have been prepared to manage a spike in absentee voting and assure safe in-person voting. Yet in the midst of Tuesday’s voting, the chairman of the Fulton County Commission (which represents Atlanta and surrounding communities), Robb Pitts, explained, “Everything that could happen or go wrong has gone wrong so far.”
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When Republicans tried to shift blame away from GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and onto county election officials, Stacey Abrams called BS. Abrams, who narrowly lost a 2018 Democratic gubernatorial bid in another mangled Georgia election, said, “It is not sufficient to say that the county you live in determines the quality of your democracy. That’s why we have the secretary of the entire state—not just the counties that do it right, not just the counties that have the resources, not just the counties that he likes.”
The former Georgia legislative leader, who had to wait in a long line to vote in person Tuesday because the absentee ballot she requested did not arrive in time, told the Journal-Constitution, “All I can think about are the people who did not receive their ballot, who were forced instead into hours-long lines, and not because they failed to do their part but because the Secretary of State’s office failed to manage this election.”
But this is not just a Georgia crisis. It is certainly true that Georgia Republicans have an all-too-well documented history of managing elections in ways that benefit their candidacies while diminishing opportunities for African-American voters to cast ballots that are unlikely to be marked for the GOP. Ultimately, however, this is one piece of a national crisis. The fundamental reality is this: Federal officials have failed to take the steps that are necessary to establish baseline standards for how states can get Americans registered to vote, get those votes cast, and get them counted. And it has not provided the funding that is necessary to meet these standards.
“The systemic under-resourcing of polling locations in predominantly Black communities like Atlanta is an intentional method of voter suppression from a Republican-led state legislature that works to further disenfranchise our communities,” Rashad Robinson, the president of Color Of Change, explained Tuesday night as observers surveyed the wreckage of an electoral meltdown. “Systematically underfunding elections while spending billions on ineffective, violent policing and mass incarceration further underscores why people are in the streets demanding that leaders defund police and invest in critical community needs like safe elections.”
Robinson argued that there are legislative actions Congress can take: “This is why it’s so urgent that the Senate act immediately to fully fund safe elections in the HEROES Act, and mandate that states spend that money addressing and preventing problems like the ones Georgia primary voters experienced today.”
Unfortunately, the time to respond is so short, and the resistance so great, that we cannot be sure that America will get things right in time for a November election that today seems far more uncertain, and imperiled.
The US House has backed the HEROES Act, a package of legislation broadly related to the coronavirus pandemic and mass unemployment that includes $3.6 billion in needed funding to update election systems across the country in order to make it easier to cast mail-in and absentee ballots, vote early, and safely cast in-person ballots on Election Day. The Democratic-controlled chamber has also endorsed increased funding for the cash-strapped US Postal Service, which is essential to ensuring that voting-by-mail initiatives can succeed. But President Trump has been actively attacking voting by mail and the post office, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues have shown no sense of urgency with regard to these measures.
Yet urgency is precisely what’s required if we’re to keep November’s elections from looking like yesterday’s mess in Georgia. It is good that people are fired up about the meltdown in their state and demanding accountability for what went wrong. But there could be dozens of Georgias, and Wisconsins, in November. And all the evidence we have tells us that inaction will lead to more suppression.
This is a critical moment for ramping up demands for action at the federal, state, and local levels. The public must increase pressure not just on the Senate, but also on state and local governments to prepare. Myrna Pérez, the director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, sums it up: “Election officials must start working now to reduce voter wait times and ensure resources are distributed fairly this general election. Without planning now, voters of color may again experience election day challenges that can lead to disenfranchisement this November.”