ATLANTA — Amid a Georgia voter purge, national and local advocates are crying foul, saying it amounts to voter suppression.
When news broke of the statewide purge, an uproar among civil rights activists and progressive politicians erupted across Georgia and the nation.
The ACLU of Georgia and other civil rights organizations called for the list of voters on the brink of cancellation to be released to the public. Big names like Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris chimed in on social media calling the move “an attack on our democracy.”
On Oct. 29, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution released a report revealing more than 300,000 Georgia voters are set to be cancelled from registration lists by the Secretary of State’s office for a lack of voting participation. The voter clean-up comes after Georgia cancelled 534,119 registrations in July 2017.
The Secretary of State’s office hastily released a statement saying that the cancellations are to satisfy federal and state laws mandating 4% voter roll reductions to “ensure that the state has the most up-to-date voter information.” Updated laws stipulate that voters must be notified by election officials before their registration is cancelled. The office also made public the list of voters under threat of being purged.
“Accurate voter lists limit confusion and delays at polling places on Election Day, and make sure voters get the correct ballot,” Chris Harvey, elections director for the Secretary of State’s Office, said in a statement. “Accurate registration lists also allow county election offices to plan for polling place equipment and staffing needs. Accurate voter lists reduce the opportunities for mistakes or fraud.”
Still, as civil rights leaders, lawmakers and lobbyists gathered Wednesday night for the “Back to the Future: The Fight for Voting Rights Act 2.0” — an Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation event — the high stakes in the fight for voting rights restoration was not lost on the crowd.
“Every week brings bad news about the challenge of voting rights,” Penelope McPhee, president of the foundation said, “this week the headlines in Georgia.”
It was no surprise Stacey Abrams, former 2018 gubernatorial candidate and avid voting rights activist, was the high-profile politician picked to address the crowd first.
“Our democracy is at risk, it’s at risk with every election. However we need to stop thinking about elections as being about politicians. In the wake of 2018, my responsibility wasn’t to claw my way to a title,” Abrams said. “My obligation was to refocus my attention on the people who were not heard. The silencing of our citizens is the challenge to our democracy. Regardless of how they will cast that vote, it is our responsibility to ensure that vote can be cast.”
Abrams said that as democracy is in danger of being undermined by various forms of voter suppression throughout the country — such as voter identification rules, polling closures and inaccurate voter registration purges — no ones vote is heard, until everyones’s vote is heard.
“The fight for voting rights is grounded on the belief that you should be able to register and stay on the rolls. Yet in 2018, Georgia faced an election where 1.4 million people were purged...” she said. “You must be able to get on the rolls and stay on the rolls because that is the passport in America.”
A panel of experts followed Abrams speech, addressing federal and state level initiatives in the fight to restore voting rights.
In 2013, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — that outlawed discriminatory voting procedures and was long reauthorized by presidents of both parties — was invalidated in a Supreme Court case “opening the flood gates” for voter restriction, Vanita Gupta, an attorney and president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said.
“At the federal level,” Gupta said, “we are seeing a retreat from voting rights laws.”
Georgia is among the top three states with the highest number of poll closures since the Supreme Court decision in 2013, she said, with no way to track closures and has historically high rates of voter registration purges.
“Every time they do this in the hundreds of thousands,” she said, “there are errors and people are disenfranchised and can’t vote when they show up to the polls.”
Wendy Weiser, vice president of democracy for the Brennan Center for Justice, said the retreat from voting protections is a “new and unusual development in our history.”
After the 2010 election, Weiser said, 25 states enacted stricter laws making it harder to vote — from voter ID requirements, cut backs on absentee and early voting ballots and making it more difficult to register.
The New Georgia Project is among the initiatives across the nation going door-to-door to win back voting rights. The nonpartisan effort aims to register and civically engage Peach State voters — especially women and minorities.
“We don’t yet have leaders who feel accountable to those communities and part of it is because they get to choose the people who vote for them...” Nse Ufot, executive director, said. “It’s not an intellectual exercise, it is tied to politics and it is tied to policy and it’s affecting people’s lives.”
Ufot said if Georgians — not just in Atlanta but all over the state — aren’t reengaged in the voting system the effect could be dire.
“Making it more difficult for people to participate means that not only do people withdraw from voting because they don’t think it will make a meaningful change in their lives, they withdraw from public life,” she said, “they withdraw from civic life and that will lead to our civic death.”