The first time Bettye Berksteiner’s parents tried to vote, they were told they were at the wrong precinct.
It was 1948 and their first attempt was at a church roughly eight blocks from their home. Once there, Lucy and James West were told their names were not listed. The couple was sent to a second location.
The same thing happened there, and this time they were directed to the city auditorium about three miles from their residence. It was a poll watcher from the NAACP who notified the Wests they were to vote back where their day began — at their neighborhood church.
“It took them all day,” Berksteiner said from her Savannah home. “This voter suppression thing is nothing new.”
Voter suppression has again become a concern in Georgia with the passage of Senate Bill 202. Boasted as reform by Republicans and roundly lambasted as suppression by Democrats, the bill passed along party lines and was signed swiftly by Gov. Brian Kemp behind closed doors.
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Among its most controversial components are additional identification verification requirements, optional early voting on Sundays — traditionally a day in which the Black vote spikes during “Souls to the Polls” campaigns — shortened absentee ballot request periods, reduced runoff election periods during which time get-out-the-vote rallies reach a fever pitch, and a ban on handouts of water and snacks to voters waiting in long lines.
The number of Black registered voters in Georgia increased by about 130,000 between Oct. 11, 2016, and Oct. 5, 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. By their analysis, turnout among Black registered voters in November also increased when compared with 2016.
And for the first time since 1992, a Democrat, Joe Biden, won the state’s presidential race. That was followed by a Democratic sweep of two U.S. Senate runoff elections.
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The legislation comes months after the historical shift. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger touted the November election, which included both a hand and an electronic recount, and the subsequent runoff as the safest and most secure the state has had. The claim did nothing to appease then-president Donald Trump, who instructed Raffensperger to “find” votes that would change the presidential outcome.
Republicans backing the bill insists the new legislation is created to ensure election security, rather than as an instrument for political gain. Democrats say it is anything but that.
“The legislation is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo said, adding it targets Black and minority voters.
For Berksteiner, the bill hearkens to Georgia’s voting rights history, which dates to the late 1800s with the establishment of poll taxes and whites-only primaries as the state saw an overwhelming number of Black men voting in elections.
“I’ve been kind of blind when it comes to some of these issues that are coming up with voting,” she said. “I thought we had overcome those.”
Voting rights: an ongoing fight
When former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson first registered to vote in 1960, all that was required of him was a birth certificate and the ability to interpret a passage from the U.S. Constitution.
“We probably had less obstacles to hurdle over than what this current group of laws will put the current voters through and that was 60 years ago,” said Johnson, who was a student at Beach High School at the time.
Johnson’s teacher made sure students studied the Constitution in preparation for what would essentially be known as a literacy test – one of the many tools used to suppress Black voters.
To understand Georgia’s history with voting and elections is to understand how the state has routinely disenfranchised Black voters, going back to the “Original 33,” a group of Black lawmakers during the Reconstruction era who were elected in 1868, but were expelled before taking office.
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One of the men, Philip Joiner, led a 25-mile march that September from Albany, Ga. to Camilla, Ga., for a political rally. Violence erupted toward the crowd of Black protesters. The day that left about 12 dead and many others wounded would become known as the Camilla massacre.
It was enough to intimidate Black voters, who stayed home on election day. And in some areas of the state, white leaders committed election fraud by misplacing or changing Black votes in favor of Democratic candidates, representing what was then the more conservative party.
Historian and former Georgia Southern University professor Jonathan Bryant said white Georgia lawmakers’ decision to enact voting laws in ways that disenfranchised Black people were a direct response to increased Black political turnout and participation.
“These are people who understood enslavement, understood taking particular people and moving them into a legal class that robbed them of personhood, robbed them of rights, robbed them of identity, in ways that they understood this as acceptable on racial grounds,” Bryant said.
The expulsion of 28 members of the “Original 33” is just one example. Shortly after the expulsion, Georgia in 1877 established poll taxes, often a $1 to $2 fine paid to vote.
And then there were literacy tests, created in 1907 in Georgia, that ran the gamut of requiring people to read a passage and interpret it, or guess how many marbles were in a jar.
In 1917, Georgia established a county unit system, which allotted votes by county in party primaries. There were three classifications: urban counties received six votes each; town counties received four votes; and rural counties (about 120 of them) received two votes. The system favored rural areas over urban areas, which were more populated by Black residents, and would be in place until 1962.
As the threat of increased Black voter turnout loomed, the conservative party created a white primary in the early 1900s in which, as the name implies, only white voters could participate, further excluding Black voters from politics.
Such primaries were eventually ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1946, two years after Primus King, a Columbus barber and preacher, tried to vote but was turned away from the whites-only primary election.
The persistent exclusion of Black voters from elections and the response to increased voter turnout in the late 19th and early 20th century reinforced low voter turnout for Black Georgia. At about that time, Black people comprised 44% of the population but made up 2% of the voting population.
In many ways, Bryant said the reaction by white legislators in the 1800s bears semblance to that of events during the Jan. 6 insurrection, when fervent supporters of Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in protest of the Nov. 3 election results and subsequent runoff elections.
“They expressed fear about what’s going to happen to the United States. They expressed fear about the future, and to many of them, that was a righteous thing to do,” Bryant said. “And much of the same thing was going on (in the 1800s).”
Trickle down effects
Like Johnson, Albany voter and businesswoman Helen Young had to take a literacy test to vote. It was 1963 and noted Georgia educator and activist McCree Harris helped her to do so.
Now, 76, Young spends her time working on ways to increase voter access in her community, registering 22 voters ahead of the Nov. 3 elections.
Young’s passion for voting rights is fueled in part by Harris’ influence, but she realizes what it means when more Black people are empowered to vote.
“It seems like every time it becomes our inning at the bat, they change the rules of the game,” she said. “They made up these damn rules and now that we learn how to play to win, to turn the state blue, now they want to change the rules.”
In the years since Young first voted, there has been the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure equitable access to voting. But other efforts spurned to suppress Black voters such as gerrymandering, the practice of redrawing district lines to favor a political party.
Emory University professor Carol Anderson said Georgia’s legislation is “creating another set of barriers,” and points squarely to the gutting of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which called for federal oversight before states could change election laws.
Threat of suppression
Republican supporters of the bill have said it will only strengthen the security of the election and in turn make it easier on election workers, who were swamped in the days following the Nov. 3 presidential race.
“After the November election last year, I knew like so many of you that significant reforms to our state elections were needed,” Kemp said after a press conference just after signing the bill into law. “There’s no doubt there were many alarming issues with how the election was handled and those problems, understandably, led to the crisis of confidence in the ballot box here in Georgia.”
Kemp pointed to the replacement of signature matches on absentee ballots with an identification requirement to request and submit absentee ballots, adding it took election workers longer to process absentee ballots because of the signature verification process.
“By moving to a state-issued ID requirement, instead of a signature match, Georgia will dramatically streamline the verification process on absentee ballots,” Kemp said.
But to opposers, Senate Bill 202 raises other concerns such as adequate voter access to the ballots. Groh-Wargo said including your state or driver’s license ID with your ballot raises identity theft concerns.
“(Identity thieves) are going to know that every ballot through the mail is a potential identity theft opportunity,” she said. “And so white seniors who lean Republican and who rely on vote-by-mail, those barriers will hurt them on voting access as well as open them up to identity theft.”
Another concern is the potential end of “Souls to the Polls,” in which churches took older parishioners to the ballot box. Under the new bill, Sunday voting is optional.
“We know that African American Georgians often will vote after church on Sundays, there’s a cohort of churches that always do that work,” Groh-Wargo said. “Another group that’s not being talked about are observant Jews, who need a weekend option to vote on their observance on Saturday. So, they need a Sunday voting option.”
Another criticism of the bill has been the shortened absentee ballot request and return period and the ban of mobile voting machines, which helped Fulton County cut down on long lines during the November early voting period.
Worry about absentee ballot voting access could also lead to increased in-person voter turnout and longer lines. Since 2012, more than 200 voting precincts in Georgia were closed leading to long lines, particularly in metro Atlanta. A recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that COVID further exposed Georgia’s voting issues as the pandemic exasperated how difficult it is to vote when there are fewer locations.
Fulton County had fewer polling locations and poll workers because of the virus, and like many counties relied on older poll workers who were unfamiliar with the new voting machines.
SPLC Deputy Director Nancy Abudu points to an ACLU report that nearly 200,000 voters were wrongfully purged from voter rolls in late 2019. That same year, Randolph County lost three precincts, which was enough to have an adverse effect on rural voters, a voting bloc that tends to lean Republican.
“We have a legislature that is committed to keeping us in the past and that is scary,” Abudu said. “And that is why federal oversight remains necessary because Georgia continues to be a bad actor. This state as an institution simply cannot be trusted to protect the rights of voters.”
When Gloria Spellen cast her ballot during early voting for the November election in Fulton County, the weather was about 80 degrees and the sun was beaming on the High Museum in Midtown Atlanta. As the line snaked around the building, Spellen, 70, had been in line for about 15 minutes before she was handed a bottle of water by a stranger, hoping to relieve residents from the heat.
“I don’t know if they were a poll worker or just a volunteer, but they actually gave me a bottle of water and my friend, just before a manager came and got us and took us to the front of the line,” she said. “It was right on time.”
But it would be a luxury now criminalized under Senate Bill 202. Groups or individuals who provide voters with food and water as they wait at the polls face jail time as it is assumed that doing so is giving a gift to a voter.
“I think that is totally absurd and inhuman. It seems as though there are no lows that they will sink to suppress our votes,” Spellen said. “They’re just trying their best to make it as uncomfortable and as unrealistic as possible.”
New Georgia Project CEO Nsé Ufot said the legislation is an attack on what voter groups do to console those standing in long lines.
“The work that we have done to bring comfort to our neighbors while they had to suffer through the indignity of eight, nine, ten-hour lines to vote will put us in jail,” she said. Since the bill has passed, several civil and voting rights groups have filed federal lawsuits challenging the law.
At the federal level, Democrats are hoping the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which establishes a review process for voting changes in jurisdictions, and the For the People Act, which expands voting rights, will curtail in the futurewhat they contend are voter suppression efforts.
For voters like Helen Young, navigating the new laws is about strategy, which means understanding the changes put in place by Senate Bill 202 and work around them. That could also mean stuffing backpacks with treats and water to give to voters before they get in line at precincts.
“Many times, it’s not how high the hurdle is, it’s how we’re trained to get over the hurdle, and that’s my mindset,” she said.
Raisa is a Watchdog and Investigative Reporter for The Savannah Morning News. Contact her at [email protected]