LOUISVILLE, GEORGIA — Seniors in rural Georgia were dancing in the street, preparing to board Black Voters Matter‘s bus to cast their ballots Monday, the first day of the state’s early voting period. But the county administrator ordered the senior center to take the 40 or so elderly African Americans off the bus — an act organizers described as “live voter suppression.”
Black Voters Matter is driving across Georgia in their bus, plastered with photos of African Americans and raised fists, conducting voter outreach and engagement. After speaking with seniors at the Leisure Center in Jefferson County about the importance of voting, they invited them to board the bus Monday to go to their polling place.
But once the elderly people were onboard, Black Voters Matter co-founder Cliff Albright announced that they’d have to get off. Leisure Center’s staff said someone had called county officials and complained that the bus should not be taking voters to the polls, he said.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday reported that a Jefferson County clerk had called the senior center, raising concerns about allowing the bus to take residents to vote. The county administrator later told the newspaper that officials considered the bus tour “political activity,” which is barred at county-sponsored events. The senior center is a county-run facility.
LaTosha Brown, Black Voters Matter’s other co-founder, said there was nothing illegal about the group’s activity. The organization is non-partisan and the bus doesn’t endorse any particular candidate. She called it a clear-cut case of “voter intimidation.”
“This is voter suppression, Southern style.”
“This is voter suppression, Southern style,” said Brown. “I’m very upset. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’ve got a lot of emotions right now.”
Bonnie Wells, the clerk for the Jefferson County Commission, on Monday had denied allegations of voter suppression, telling ThinkProgress her office didn’t receive any calls complaining about Black Voters Matter’s activity. She said they made no attempt to interfere with the senior citizens riding the bus to the polls. Representatives from the senior center did not respond to requests for comment.
There are no laws in Jefferson County or in the state of Georgia prohibiting groups from transporting voters to the polls, according to Brown, who said the elderly citizens “actually requested to ride with us.” Jefferson County is roughly 53 percent black, according to Census data.
Late Tuesday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sent a letter to the county on behalf of Black Voters Matter demanding that officials open an “immediate investigation” into the incident, which it condemned as “an unacceptable act of voter intimidation” and saying it “potentially violates several laws.”
“During this electoral season, we all should be committed to ensuring that more, not fewer, eligible voters can participate and exercise their fundamental right to vote,” read the letter signed by Leah Aden, the organization’s deputy director of litigation.
Black Voters Matter, an advocacy group that helped Doug Jones win his Senate seat in Alabama late last year, is currently on a bus tour it has called “The South is Rising.” The group is traveling across seven southern states, undertaking voter outreach and engagement, as well as providing disaster relief in parts of Georgia affected by Hurricane Michael.
Black Voters Matter organizers said they did not know who called the commissioner, but said they presume it was someone who was scared by the sight of black people celebrating and preparing to vote.
“Even in the absence of law, they will use tactics like intimidation and voter suppression,” Brown said. “Somebody called the county commission, but there was nothing illegal or inappropriate.”
The senior center has its own bus that it can use to bring the elderly voters to the polls in the future, Brown said.
“At the end of the day, every senior that got off that bus, not only are they going to vote, but they’re going to get five to ten people to vote with them,” she said.
Once the seniors were back inside the building, Black Voters Matter organizers walked down the street to a historical plaque marking where a slave market once stood. While they planned their next steps, Louisville, Georgia resident Margaret Walker drove by and rolled down her window to offer some words of encouragement. “I just want you to know, y’all are on the right path,” she said. “We have a lot of people here who don’t have transportation and can’t get to the polls.”
Albright said that being confronted by this tactic only fires up the organizers even more.
“They made us even more energized,” he said, to cheers from the seniors. “Can’t stop, won’t stop.”
This story was updated on Tuesday with quotes from Jefferson County officials and details from a letter sent to the county by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.