Getting Black Georgians registered to vote was already a daunting task for some local advocacy groups before state GOP lawmakers passed a law making it harder for many folks to cast their ballots.
The full effects of Georgia’s Senate Bill 202 — the controversial Election Integrity Act of 2021 that Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law more than a year ago — won’t be known until midterm elections take place in November, according to local voting rights advocacy group leaders.
The law’s provision barring volunteers from giving food and water to voters standing in line outside polling stations — within 150 feet of a polling place — made national headlines last year. But 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 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 in populous regions, such as Fulton County.
Media reports of the measure’s potential negative impacts on voting are already having a demoralizing effect on Black voters throughout the state, according to Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan voting rights nonprofit based in Atlanta.
Just 40% of Black registered voters in Georgia expect it to be “very easy” to vote this year, compared to 73% of white registered voters who said the same, according to a Quinnipiac poll conducted in January.
Ufot said speculation about SB 202 is largely to blame for Black voters’ low morale.
“The news about it has made people think their vote may not count,” she said. “Part of our challenge is making sure they know that their vote does count.”
Ufot’s organization is one of several working to register as many new voters as possible in Georgia ahead of the November midterms and Georgia’s May 24 primary elections for both Republicans and Democrats.
Since January, Ufot said her organization’s staffers have registered at least 10,000 new voters, with a goal of registering a total of 30,000 by the end of the year.
That would be a notable decline from the 100,000 new voters NGP registered during the 2018 midterm election cycle, when many people of all backgrounds, particularly Black women and suburbanites, were motivated to vote against the political agenda of then-President Donald Trump.
“2018 was the first big election after Trump was elected,” Ufot said. “You saw historic participation, historic turnout. There was also an awareness about the power of the vote and people wanting to feel like they were doing something to try to preserve our democracy and to try to vote their values.”
Trump is no longer in office and President Joe Biden’s approval rating recently hit an all-time low amid increasing gas prices and rising inflation. Democrats in Congress also have failed to pass funding for key elements of Biden’s economic agenda as well as bills addressing voting rights, police reform, and other issues important to Black voters.
But Ufot said voter enthusiasm isn’t a great way to determine if the local Black electorate will turn out on election day.
“Black folks in Georgia, their voting behavior, particularly Black women voters, routinely show up to vote as a harm-reduction [tactic],” she said. “The elected officials routinely disappoint Black folk, routinely fall short of their political campaign rhetoric and we still show up to vote because not doing so doesn’t feel like a realistic option for those of us who are trying to make America better.”
Recounting the tangible benefits that Black Georgia voters helped secure during the 2020 election cycle is key for some organizers. It’s part of the strategy to motivate new voters, says Fenika Miller, senior state organizing manager for the Georgia division of Black Voters Matter. Miller’s organization is a nonprofit working to register and mobilize Black voters throughout the Southeast.
“For those folks who say, ‘My vote doesn’t count,’ you run down those lists of things that your vote did deliver,” Miller said.
That list of deliverables includes more than $1 billion in funding for Georgia child care, $1,400 stimulus payments, and other COVID-19 relief funds in conjunction with the American Rescue Plan.
“We saw federal money directly go to municipalities, county commissions and school boards, but at the same time, we still see stagnation and low wages,” Miller said. “Folks want to see direct relief in their pocket for their immediate quality of life. That is a hard conversation to have.”
Activists working with Black Voters Matter have been canvassing Georgia’s Black Belt — rural counties in southern and central regions of the state where Black folks comprise a large percentage of the population — since March 7.
That effort, Miller said, will continue through October. Beginning in April, the organization’s volunteers will turn their attention to registering and mobilizing eligible high school students to vote.
“We want to have conversations with those voters and students about the issues that are relevant to them and local issues and engage them in the process in advance,” she said.
The work of groups like NGP and Black Voters Matter has paved the way for Georgia becoming a battleground state in recent years, even with the threat of COVID-19.
Georgians cast absentee ballots in record numbers during the 2020 election cycle thanks in part to the pandemic, but Miller said fears about the mail-in ballots not being counted, or potentially facing legal scrutiny over them due to SB 202, discouraged many Black voters from using them again during 2021 municipal elections.
“We ended up taking a lot of people to go vote in-person versus requesting absentee,” she said. “We saw a lot of anxiety, especially among older Black voters, who’ve seen this before. They lived through Jim Crow.”
Black folks in Southern states were forced to contend with literacy tests, poll taxes and the very real threat of violence for attempting to vote during the Jim Crow era, before former President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law. Some, like World War II veteran and Georgia resident Maceo Snipes, were killed just for exercising their constitutional rights.
“Now you’ve got folks scared to sign their name on a piece of paper to just request a vote by mail because they don’t know what’s going to pop off,” Miller added. “That’s what voter suppression and oppression is designed to do. It is to exhaust you, make you feel hopeless. But that’s not what we’re about.”