Georgia lawmaker claims cutting Sunday voting has nothing to do with race

In 2016, 53% of early weekend voters were people of color, compared to 35% of the electorate overall.

Voters line up outside Liberty Baptist Church to cast their ballot in the 2016 Presidential Election on November 8, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Americans across the nation are picking their choice for the next president of the United States. CREDIT: Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
Voters line up outside Liberty Baptist Church to cast their ballot in the 2016 Presidential Election on November 8, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Americans across the nation are picking their choice for the next president of the United States. CREDIT: Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Georgia lawmakers are considering a bill this week that would eliminate Sunday voting and cut the hours that polls are open in Atlanta. If the House passes the legislation and the Senate agrees to the amendments, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) could sign it into law by the end of the week.

The proposal, SB 363, would make it more difficult for residents of the majority-black city of Atlanta to cast ballots, and would eliminate an early voting day that is used disproportionately by African American voters. But Sen. Matt Brass (R), the original sponsor of the bill, claims it’s about fairness and not race.

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“Quite honestly, race never entered my mind until after the amendment was added and I began receiving emails calling me a racist,” he told ThinkProgress in an email. “I never make decisions based on race, never have, wasn’t raised that way.”

Nse Ufot, executive director of the non-partisan voter engagement group New Georgia Project, said Brass’ intent is not important.

“There’s intent and then there’s impact, and this will disproportionately impact voters of color and this will disproportionately impact women and caretakers,” she said. “So whether or not you meant to cause harm I think is of very little comfort to those who having their voting rights infringed on.”

The Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, agrees. Warnock sees the bill as a direct attack on black and working-class people’s right to vote.

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“We should not be naive,” he said. “This disproportionately hurts working voters and minority voters… There’s already, built into the system, an inherent bias against working voters. [Elections are] on a Tuesday. You have to decide between your wage and your ballot. Weekend voting offers some moderate relief to a system that’s already slanted against poor and working-class people.”

For Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Sunday during early voting is a critical and celebratory day. Last year, the church invited 2 Chainz and other hip-hop artists to perform while families barbecued and mingled with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and King’s sister. Meanwhile, the church loaded voting-age parishioners into caravans to take them to the nearby polls to cast ballots. In 2016, the New Georgia Project collaborated with a network of more than 1,000 churches to mobilize voters and hold Souls to the Polls rallies across the state.

That year, over half of all Georgia voters cast ballots early. More than 170,000 of them voted on weekends, including at least 52,000 who voted on the one Sunday the polls were open. Of the Georgia residents who took advantage of weekend hours, 53 percent were voters of color, compared to 35 percent of the electorate overall.

CREDIT: Ebenezer Baptist Church
CREDIT: Ebenezer Baptist Church

“There’s clear evidence that people take advantage of this, that it’s a good thing for Georgia, and that it’s led to increased participation, and we can’t understand why — why why why — they would want to do this,” Ufot said about the legislation.

While Brass says it’s not about race, other GOP lawmakers have said otherwise. In 2014, when Democrats in one of Georgia’s largest counties announced it would be expanding early voting state Sen. Fran Millar (R) expressed concern that Sunday voting would allow black churches to organize large numbers of voters to bring them to the polls. “I would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters,” he wrote on his Facebook.

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“There’s been an effort by the GOP nationally to suppress the vote, and every now and then, they admit what they’re up to,” Warnock said.

The GOP-controlled House is expected to vote on the legislation Tuesday, giving the GOP-controlled Senate time to consider the amended proposal before the end of the session Thursday.

In addition to eliminating Sunday voting by only allowing weekend voting on one day before an election, the bill would also make it more difficult for Atlanta residents to get to the polls. Under current law, cities in Georgia with more than 300,000 residents like Atlanta can keep their polls open one hour later during municipal elections than the rest of the state because of the city’s poor public transportation and large population of low-wage workers. This bill would require Atlanta polls to close at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.

“This feels like it’s targeted and designed to go after shift workers, hourly-wage workers, low-income workers, caretakers — which disproportionately are women of color, particularly black women,” Ufot said.

Warnock also noted that traffic in other parts of the state does not compare to Atlanta, where voters often have to fight against gridlock to make it to the polls before they close.

But Brass, who sponsored the legislation, said it is unfair that certain voters get an extra hour to cast a ballot. When asked by ThinkProgress why he doesn’t push to keep all polls across the state open an extra hour, Brass alluded vaguely to staffing concerns.

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“There are 172 polling places in the city of Atlanta and 2000-plus around the state,” he said. “Some of our polling places already have trouble getting poll volunteers and I didn’t think adding an hour would help them.”

He is also not concerned that the bill would hinder voter turnout, because he said “there is still plenty of time given to vote.”

Ufot, meanwhile, said her group and advocates with the American Civil Liberties of Georgia, Advancement Project, and other organizations will do whatever they can this week to stop the bill, including educating voters and having them call their representatives. Let America Vote, a national voting rights organization, set up a call tool to allow Georgians to easily call their lawmakers. Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, told ThinkProgress the group will move forward with litigation if the bill does become law, claiming it violates the Voting Rights Act. She noted that had the U.S. Supreme Court not gutted the VRA in 2013, the Department of Justice would have had to preclear this legislation and likely would have ended the effort.

Ufot said voters also plan to send a message through turning out in large numbers for the primary in May and the upcoming midterm election in November. A recent YouGov statewide poll found that most Georgia voters support early voting and women, independents, and black voters are less likely to vote for candidates who reduce opportunities for early voting.

“The enemies of progress are looking at and trying to deploy any tool or trick they have available to them to fight the future,” Ufot said. “They’re not going to win. We’re doing everything that we can to fight this legislation.”

As the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination approaches next month, Warnock said it’s hypocritical that many GOP politicians show up to his church every year to celebrate the civil rights icon’s legacy, but then work to undermine voting rights.

“This is tragically ironic,” he said. “King and those who worked alongside him literally sacrificed their youth fighting for voting rights. You cannot remember Dr. King and dismember his legacy at the same time.”