A plan to further slash the availability of early voting is rapidly advancing in Georgia.
A committee of state lawmakers voted along party lines last week to slash the state’s early voting days from 21 to 12. The full legislature could call a vote on the cuts at any time, and with Republicans holding a majority of the House seats, the measure would likely pass.
More than a third of the state’s voters cast their ballot early in this past election, and demand for early voting was so high that several counties opened the polls on a Sunday for the first time in state history. In 2008, more than half of participants voted early.
But the bill’s sponsors say the goal of the cuts is to ensure “uniformity” and “equal access” between counties. Civil rights advocates, including President Francys Johnson of the Georgia NAACP, disagree, and tell ThinkProgress the measure would suppress the votes of the state’s growing minority population.
“People of color tend to utilize early voting, and I think at the heart of all of this is an attempt to reduce the opportunities for people to let their voice be heard,” he said. “They’re saying to working Georgians and seniors and communities of color and the young: ‘We’re not interested in your participation.”
Johnson added that this change could have a devastating impact on the 2016 election.
“We could see 5 to 7 hour lines in some places of people standing and waiting to cast a ballot,” he said. “Even in this past election, the Secretary of State’s website crashed on Election Day because it was overwhelmed by demand. But the worst is that it would send a chilling message to voters, especially those in vulnerable communities.”
Early voting in Georgia has already been cut significantly over the past few years, from 45 days to 21. During this past midterm election, demand for early voting was so high in the state’s large cities that some areas opened up early voting on Sunday in heavily-trafficked shopping areas, prompting some Republican officials to publicly complain that this made it too easy for African Americans to cast a ballot.
House Minority Whip Carolyn Hugley (D) told ThinkProgress that local county officials have been calling her office with concerns the cuts would make elections more expensive rather than cheaper. “If you restrict the number of days, officials in our biggest counties say they will have to have more polling locations and additional machines in order to provide adequate access to their citizens,” she said. “Voting is a fundamental right of citizenship and that should be the first and primary concern, not that you might save a few dollars here or there for certain counties.”
Since the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department has been unable to prevent states with a history of racism and voter suppression from making changes to their voting laws. Representative Hugley says bills like the current one to cut early voting are proof the state still needs that federal oversight.
“If this is what they think fairness looks like,” she said, “in my mind it says that Georgia is not ready to come out from under the protections of the Voting Rights Act. We certainly cannot say that we’re encouraging people to exercise their right to vote if we’re restricting the number of days of access to the polling places.”
Tension between Georgia’s Republican administration and voting rights groups spiked last fall when Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp failed to account for nearly 40,000 voter registrations missing from the official database. His office then accused the group that registered the new voters — the majority of them young people of color — of voter fraud. The New Georgia Project and other civil rights groups called this an attempt to intimidate them and discourage future registration drives. Lawmakers in the state also tried, unsuccessfully, to cut the early voting days from 21 to 6.
Though the new legislation looks likely to pass, Johnson says he and other civil rights advocates will do everything they can to stop it — from lobbying lawmakers to demonstrating at the state capitol to suing the Secretary of State under Section 2 of the Voting Right Act.
“We are mobilizing aggressively. We will mortgage every asset we have to protect the ballot,” he said. “In this fight, we cannot lose. We will hold a mirror up to the state of Georgia and remind her of both her egregious past in terms of voting rights and remind her what this democracy is all about.”