Since Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed sweeping– but unnecessary — changes to the state’s voting laws this week, I have not been able to get the once-popular country song: “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” out of my mind.
The song’s lyrics tell us the lights went out, because it was the night “they hung an innocent man.”
What Kemp, the state legislature and other Republican power brokers hoped to achieve with this vindictive overhaul of a voting system that was not broken — regardless of their tongue-and-cheek pronouncements to the contrary — was to lynch the progress that voters of color and other members of minority groups have won through hard-fought legal battles, demonstrations, protests and support from right-thinking fellow Georgians over decades of painful — and sometimes, life-threatening work.
More than once, in the often blood-thirsty history of this state, innocent men and women, who wanted no more than what was due them as citizens of this commonwealth, and who tried to stand up for their rights, were lynched, or beaten to death, or shot and left for carrion eaters.
According to the online Georgia Encyclopedia: “During the Atlanta race riot that occurred September 22-24, 1906, white mobs killed dozens of Black Georgians, wounded scores of others, and inflicted considerable property damage. Local newspaper reports of alleged assaults by Black men on white women were the catalyst for the riot, but a number of underlying causes lay behind the outbreak of the mob violence.
“By the 1880’s, Atlanta had become the hub of the regional economy, and the city’s overall population soared from 89,000 in 1900 to 150,000 in 1910; the Black population was approximately 9,000 in 1880 and 35,000 by 1900. Such growth put pressure on municipal services, increased job competition among Black and white workers, heightened class distinctions, and led the city’s white leadership to respond with restrictions intended to control the daily behavior of the growing working class, with mixed success. Such conditions caused concern among elite whites, who feared the social intermingling of the races, and led to an expansion of Jim Crow segregation, particularly in the separation of white and Black neighborhoods and separate seating areas for public transportation.”
Although this week’s legislative actions are, of course, not “violent” in the same way as some incidents of the past, the more “white-collar” restrictions on voting rights– carried out with a stroke of a pen — are still eerily reminiscent of the bare-knuckled approaches of the past.
To paraphrase Mark Twain: Reports of the death of Jim Crow have been greatly exaggerated.
Depending on how this new Georgia effort — which is being watched by Republican lawmakers around the country — fares in the courts and elsewhere — things could, again, take a nastier turn.
Ol’ Jim Crow ain’t dead. Hell, he, apparently, ain’t even sick. If people of color aren’t vigilant, extremely careful, and don’t keep fighting the good fight, he, (Massa Jim) might come back stronger than ever.
The legislation that Gov. Kemp signed barely an hour after it left the legislature made the following changes to the state’s voting process, according to coverage by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Absentee ballots must now be verified using driver’s license numbers or other state-issued documentation, instead of voter signatures. The requirement replaces “signature-matching processes,” even though, according to the AJC, “more than 200,000 Georgia voters lack a drivers license or a state ID number. That means more obstacles for many registered voters to overcome before being able to vote.
Ballot drop boxes will be allowed only inside early voting locations and will be available only during regular business hours, which will certainly make them less useful to voters.
Weekend voting will be expanded for general elections with two mandatory Saturdays statewide. Counties can add two additional Sundays of early voting, if they choose.
The State Election Board will be able to exercise much more control over county election boards, even to the extend that it can remove county election boards and replace them with an interim elections manager.
The deadline to request an absentee ballot will be 11 days before election day.
Counties will be required to certify election results within six days, rather the 10 days currently allowed.
As bad as those changes are for thousands of registered voters in this state — many of whom are elderly, have trouble getting around, or work long hours, and/or do not have driver’s licenses ( as many young voters don’t) — there is another provision in the law that I find egregiously cruel and absurd.
It comes under Voter Assistance. Get this: members of the public are prohibited from distributing food or water to voters waiting in line near a polling place. As if the rest of these Draconian restrictions aren’t bad enough, this one takes the cake! It will be illegal to give tired, hungry, thirsty voters — who have been standing in line for hours, who are afraid to lose their place in line — a cool drink of water.
Such a simple act of kindness from one human being to another will now be illegal in Georgia!
Republican lawmakers insist— with a straight face, no less — the changes are necessary to restore public confidence in the state’s election system after Joe Biden beat former president Donald Trump in the 2020 election, the first time a Democrat had garnered the majority of Georgia’s electoral votes since 1992.
A run-off to fill two (Georgia) U.S. Senate seats in January also shocked Republican leaders, since both races were won by Democrats, giving that party control of the U.S. Senate.
Then-President Donald Trump had begun to set the stage to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 elections months before the first ballots were ever cast. He relentlessly preached that the expected increase in the use of absentee ballots, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, meant there would be widespread voter fraud. He continued that “fraudulent” claim long after the elections were over, and courts — from the state level to the U.S. Supreme Court — had dismissed scores of challenges to election results.
It is clear Republican leaders in Georgia are disingenuous in their claim of trying to remedy widespread distrust of the election process among Georgia voters. The truthful and better way to do that would have been to simply tell the truth about the recent elections: that there was no widespread voter fraud, period!
They should never have followed Trump in continuing to try to legitimize one of the biggest political lies in recent history.
Their culpability in propping up Trump’s lies makes their claims for these voting restrictions hard to digest. What they really want is to seriously lower the numbers of people of color, who vote in the state’s elections, and thereby, increase the chances of Republicans continuing to hold power in a state whose demographics are changing by the minute. And so many of the “new” voters seem to prefer policies pushed by Democrats, rather than those loved by Republicans.
President Biden called these initiatives in Georgia and in other states “un-American,” and “sick.” I concur with his diagnosis.