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Despite New Restrictions, Black Voters Remain Energized on Election Day

Experts say SB 202 was designed to suppress votes, but residents didn’t let that stop them from casting their ballots.

Voters in Atlanta take part in Tuesday's midterm election. (Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Ahead of Election Day, voters, advocates, and political pundits have debated over whether Georgia’s updated voting laws would suppress the Black electorate. 

The new law, SB 202, has provisions barring volunteers from giving food and water to voters standing in line outside polling stations — within 150 feet of a precinct. The measure also adds a number of new requirements to obtain an absentee ballot after a record number of Georgians used that method in 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also limits the number of absentee ballot drop boxes posted throughout the state to 1 per 100,000 active voters, or one for every early voting site. There is also a requirement for residents to show ID before obtaining an absentee ballot. That’s expected to have an outsized effect on Black voters.

On the eve of Election Day, a judge extended the deadline for Cobb County to receive absentee ballots to Nov. 14. The move came after more than 1,000 voters said they did not get their documents after requesting them.

On Nov. 8, Black voters in metro Atlanta were both motivated and apprehensive about the challenges presented by SB 202. Residents in the five major metro counties told Capital B Atlanta that despite experiencing added hurdles from the legislation, they were not deterred.

Retired educator Maggie Taylor said that as the daughter of sharecroppers and the granddaughter of an enslaved man, she votes for her ancestors that couldn’t.

“[SB 202] increased my determination to vote, if that’s possible,” said Taylor, who lives in South Fulton and voted at Benjamin Banneker High School. “Hell and high water can’t stop me from voting.”

In addition to the ballot and precinct restrictions, SB 202 opened the door for Georgia residents to challenge voter eligibility of others. Under the new law, Georgia counties are required to investigate eligibility challenges. This year alone, there have been at least 65,000 voter eligibility challenges involving conservatives questioning the validity of an individual’s registration. 

Residents Capital B Atlanta spoke to did not have any voter eligibility challenges, and some voters said they didn’t have to wait in any lines, a stark difference from previous years.

“Today was easy, when I voted last time the lines were ridiculous, but today I just walked right in,” said Martika Lenoir, a resident of Powder Springs who voted at Ron Anderson Recreation Center. 

Lenoir said the short lines made her a little nervous about low voter turnout, but she hopes that means more people took advantage of early voting. Though Lenoir usually votes in person, she said her parents normally vote by absentee ballot. This election, her mom and dad voted in person because of SB 202.

“They decided to come in because we don’t know what’s gonna happen when you send your ballot off,” she said. “I feel like they did that because she [Stacey Abrams] is running again. … We turned Georgia blue in the last election, so [Republicans] are trying to prevent that again.”

During the primary election in May, Black voters told Capital B Atlanta about being redirected to other precincts. SB 202 requires voters who arrive at the wrong precinct before 5 p.m. to be directed to the correct precinct rather than being allowed to vote by provisional ballot.

Terrance Chisholm, a writer from College Park and first-time Georgia voter, said he left his polling place at Benjamin Banneker High School after seeing a sign posted directing some voters to Solid Rock Pentecostal Church 4 miles up the street. Election workers at Solid Rock told him to return back to Banneker.

“I can see how it would affect other people,” said Chisholm. “This going back and forth, if you didn’t have a car and you planned to do this, this kind of mix-up could be much more difficult.”

Gabe Sterling, chief operating officer for Georgia’s secretary of state office, said this election was smooth sailing and uneventful. 

“So far Election Day in Georgia has been, in fact, wonderfully, stupendously boring,” Sterling said in a tweet.

In DeKalb County, voting hours at Solid Rock AME Zion Church were pushed back until 7:39 p.m. According to DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections Executive Director Keisha Smith, an early morning operational delay resulted in a 39-minute delay for voters. “Overall, we have experienced a relatively smooth Election Day thus far and look forward to quickly addressing any issues that might impact voters casting ballots today,” Smith said in a statement.

A second polling location in Tucker — Lawrenceville Road United Methodist Church — extended its hours to 7:40 p.m.

But just because voters aren’t seeing the immediate impacts of SB 202 and new election restrictions, it doesn’t change that the bill was an intentional voter suppression attempt, according to Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University.

“There is such a thing as intention versus actual impact,” Gillespie said. “Even if the plan didn’t work, even if people could figure out how to get past the barriers that were put into place, that still doesn’t redeem the bill from being what it was, which was trying to prevent people from voting.” 

Gillespie is currently working on a survey that asks voters in Georgia if they feel that they’ve experienced suppression in the past year. She has conducted previous studies looking at voter ID laws and their impact on suppressing votes. She says it is too soon to tell if SB 202 is succeeding in curbing Black votes or if the changes are tougher on voters depending on whether they live in urban, suburban, or rural areas.

Michelle Barlow, who went to the South Cobb Recreation Center in Austell to vote, said her registration card listed that as her polling location. Barlow was then directed to another polling precinct. While the precinct was just 3 miles up the road, she felt it was an act of voter suppression. 

“They’re trying to make it hard for us,” she said, before rushing off to her proper precinct. 

Prior to the new bill, it was common for nonprofit organizations to have Election Day celebrations outside polling places to encourage voters. Georgia Stand-Up, a nonprofit focused on voter education, has been having block parties near local polling sites for years.

This year, Georgia Stand-Up and We Vote. We Win. partnered with BlackPush Inc., Black Male Initiative Georgia, and Georgia NAACP to host one of their Election Day block parties across the street from the Metropolitan Library voting precinct.

The group offered refreshments, played music, and led chants to encourage voters. “Because of SB 202 we can’t pass anything out to them, but we can post up on the corners and support [voters] that way,” said Alivia Duncan, Georgia Stand-Up’s lead organizer.

Duncan said her team has been out at different precincts in metro Atlanta from the early voting period through Election Day.

“On Friday at this location there was a two-hour wait, the line was down the street,” she said. 

“So people heard the music, came over, grabbed what they needed, went back to the line, and we were able to move around SB 202.”

Even with efforts to encourage Black voters, at precincts, residents like Peter Olotu said they did not need the extra push. Olotu lives in Powder Springs and hasn’t missed an election since he moved to metro Atlanta in the 1990s.

“It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t affect me,” he said about SB 202 and the added challenges for voters. “Nobody’s going to stop me from voting.”