The United States has a long and sullied history of restricting the right to vote. While the Constitution was certainly revolutionary at its time for cementing some rights into law, it was lackluster to say the least when it came to deciding who could and couldn’t vote. Because the selection of voting rights was left up to individual states by the Founding Fathers, the possibility of limiting the voting populace was left on the table, and many states decided to seize on the opportunity. While originally being limited to land-owning white males, the right to vote was eventually expanded to include all white males, then all males following the 15th Amendment, and finally to include women as well thanks to the 19th Amendment. However, as equally long as the path to voter enfranchisement is the story of voter restrictions. While the Jim Crow laws of the South were eventually stripped away, the push to limit the voting rights of some groups, especially racial minorities such as Hispanic or Black Americans, is seeing a resurgence following the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race. Nowhere is this more visible than in Georgia, where a surprise upset victory for Democrats has prompted a wave of conspiracy theories and false allegations about voter fraud, causing the Republican dominated state legislature to pass a sweeping voting bill that’s been described as Jim Crow 2.0. In this post, we’ll take a look at Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein’s article breaking down the components of the new bill, and see how it might point to a larger trend across America of democratic ersoion.
If you can manage to make it through the confusing legalese of the Georgia bill, the breadth of the GOP’s attacks on voting rights is quite astounding. The article hones in on 16 provisions that they claim to limit voting ability and/or give additional power to the legislature to control elections. While gone are the days of poll taxes and literacy tests (at least, in theory), there are several new measures that appear almost as specifically targeted against urban and minority areas as those Jim Crow practices; the most talked-about of these has to be the criminalization of giving water or snacks to people in lines to vote. As Epstein and Corasaniti explain, this very blatantly targets areas with more people, which in Georgia and nationwide tend to be Democratic-leaning cities. They go on to say that long lines are a major source of voter disenfranchisement, with over 500,000 voters avoiding casting a ballot due to hours-long waits; this problem is further exacerbated in Georgia by its searing hot temperatures and humidity, causing voting lines to become positively miserable. By then further worsening the problem by banning water being given to waiters, this section of the Georgia bill seems to be purpose made to deter Democratic-leaning voters away from the polls. In fact, many of the new changes seem to target heavily populated (read: minority and Democratic) areas, for example in regards to voting hours. On page 72 of the bill, it introduces legislation that makes it much harder for polling stations to stay open later if they experience issues, be it machine problems or poor staffing; unsurprisingly, the polling stations that tend to be worse staffed and run into more problems tend to be those that have to process more votes, AKA urban areas. Under the new bill, if such issues arise, it will become even more likely that voters will be turned away and have less time to find a different way to vote. All in all, the GOP’s bill in Georgia doesn’t try very hard to disguise who it is targeting: densely populated, lower-income, Democratic-voting cities with people that can’t afford the extra time away from work to get to the polls in the new hours, and those who do are further discouraged from staying by hours-long sweltering lines. This is a textbook example of voter disenfranchisement, and it is especially worrisome for the nation because the ability to vote is the single most important basis for democracy; while the new laws can’t specifically target certain groups in name, the outcome is the same, and this recent effort by Republicans in Georgia and in state legislatures across the country to attack the most fundamental aspect of our society should be a harrowing red flag to all Americans of the threat of democratic backsliding.
However, the story doesn’t end with discouraging Democratic voters away from polling stations. The second main class of changes implemented have to do with who has the power, essentially. In almost every single election center across the country, polls are run by local and state-level election officials, decentralizing them to insulate from the partisan pressures inherent to lawmakers. This system has been in place and working for decades; on a personal note, my grandmother, in fact, was a Supervisor of Elections in Arkansas in the 1990s, and she’s told us many times about how politics were kept out of their jobs due to the sensitive nature of elections. Tangent aside, there is a reason to keep legislature out of the process of managing elections; the Georgia GOP, and many state chambers across the country, now seem to disagree following Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat. The most obvious component of the Georgia bill regarding this is found on page 8, which effectively strips the secretary of state of his role, and replaces him with a chair chosen directly by the (Republican-dominated) state legislature. Looking at the context for this power grab, Corasaniti and Epstein argue that it is basically a “revenge move” against the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, who refused to go along with Trump’s efforts to overturn election results that were leaning towards Biden. While this provision does include some protections against newly elected members becoming the chair, it is plain to see the problem; one party, the GOP, is seizing control over the management of elections, which as already discussed, are the fundamental principle of cemocracy and are purposefully kept separate from partisan politics. However, state Republicans in Georgia and across the country appear eager to throw away this norm and place themselves as the leaders of institutions they previously attacked as insecure. This tactic is not a new concept, it in fact comes directly from the playbook of populists and authoritarians: lambast democratic norms and institutions, replace leaders of said institutions with radical loyalists, and change the rules to tilt elections in your favor.
While the recent bill in Georgia is certainly a distressing sign of democratic erosion, it isn’t the only state in play. Texas and Colorado are among multiple other states with GOP-controlled legislatures that are either considering or have already passed similar bills to Georgia’s. There has been a growing partisan divide in America since the 1970s, but over the years, and especially recently, the Republican party has drifted farther and faster than its blue counterpart. The prerequisites for democratic backsliding have been accumulating over decades, fueled mostly by the right, and it appears 2020 was the year that pushed Republican lawmakers to seize upon the simmering pot of partisanship to enact their plan. I see the actions around the nation and especially Georgia to be the first signs of a new age in politics; while before the authoritarian inclinations of the GOP were at best thinly veiled, I believe that they have chosen to embrace them as their de facto platform. The ever-growing split between the left and right led, in many ways, to the election of Donald Trump, and the last four years seem to have awoken a new acceptance of authoritariansim amongst Republican voters and officials. If the new bills aimed at eroding the foundations of America’s democracy are not repealed or otherwise negated, I believe that the next restrictions created by the GOP might not be so inconspicuous in who they target.