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Beyond Voter Turnout: Re-centering Voter Suppression’s Real Threat to Democracy

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December 19, 2022

The 2022 midterm and runoff elections have proven to be another contentious voting season in Georgia. And while Raphael Warnock ultimately came out on top, many Democrats were anxiously waiting to see the impacts of voter suppression with the Republican-controlled legislature passing Senate Bill 202 or the Election Integrity Act in 2021.

Despite these barriers, with the fall of Roe in June, several leaders of political organizations predicted voters would turn out to cast their ballots to decide who will be in charge of the future of abortion rights in the U.S. And with the record-breaking turnout in Georgia’s runoff elections, it’s apparent that more and more voters want their voices heard. It might be easy to dismiss voter suppression as a relic of the past, but voter suppression in Georgia and across the South threatens the gains made by organizers and grassroots politicians and restricts the access and will of the people. 

The reason Georgia-based reproductive justice (RJ) organizations like Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity (URGE) Georgia, Amplify Georgia Collaborative, the Feminist Center, Arc Southeast, and Sister Love are so committed to fair and democratic elections is because voting rights are a reproductive justice issue. Because the outcome of elections dictates which legislatures are elected and what legislation will pass, our access to reproductive care and support is at stake! Voter suppression proves particularly consequential for advocates of RJ since voter suppression in the U.S. disproportionately affects marginalized people, including people of color, people with disabilities, and queer and trans people–many of the same groups that are most at risk with RJ. 

What is voter suppression?

According to the Anti-Defamation League, voter suppression is used to impact the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting. And though many people can recall the landmark decision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ensuring suffrage for Black Americans, the reality is, voting rights have been contentious since this country’s inception. In the last ten years, voter suppression has only increased since Shelby stripped the Voting Rights Act of critical components in 2013, and several states have enacted new requirements that limit voting access. 

What voter suppression looks like in Georgia

There are many tactics employed for the purpose of voter suppression, but in this piece, we’ll cover absentee ballot restrictions, gerrymandering, voter ID, and voter challenge laws, exploring how they have affected and influenced the most recent election. 

Since Shelby, even more laws have bubbled up across the country to restrict voting rights. After Democrats successfully flipped several seats in the 2020 Presidential and Senate races, Republicans quickly responded with SB202, which has impeded absentee and early voting by limiting the number of dropboxes per jurisdiction and reducing the time to request and return absentee ballots. In November, Cobb County residents sued the county for failing to mail over a thousand requested absentee ballots. 

Another mechanism of voter suppression is gerrymandering, which the Brennan Center defines as the boundaries of a voting district being redrawn with the particular intention of influencing who gets elected. The effects of the power imbalance established by gerrymandering was most evident in Georgia’s 2016 election, considered the least competitive in the country with 81% uncontested legislative seats. Back in March of this year, federal judge Steve Jones admitted that the new redistricting maps used in Georgia’s midterm elections would include districts that violate the Voting Rights Act.

Other tactics include voter ID laws and unfair voting purges. In 2018, over 100,000 people were barred from voting because they didn’t vote in the previous election cycle. In this year’s midterm elections, the allowance of unlimited voter challenges in Georgia led to targeted organized voter challenges, leaving thousands of voters confused and needing to use provisional ballots at the polls. Laws like these disproportionately impact low-income and rural voters and effectively dilutes the voting powers of affected communities. 

Another immediate effect felt by SB202 this midterm season was the reduced timespan between the primary and runoffs (from 9 to 4 weeks), which increased the strain on poll workers. Warnock’s campaign actually sued to allow Saturday voting after state election officials interpreted a state law to restrict weekend voting if it falls after a holiday–Thanksgiving, in this case. Despite ruling in favor of Warnock, only 27 out of 159 counties held Saturday elections on November 26. Given that election day is not a federal holiday, how many more might have voted had more counties opened polls on the weekend? 

Looking forward 

With the Dobbs ruling leaving the right to abortion in the hands of the state electorate, preserving the right to vote is now more critical than ever. In the weeks since the election and runoff results, we’ve learned of unprecedented turnout in Georgia and across the country as young voters turned out in record-breaking numbers in support of abortion rights and other more progressive issues. 

Due to this record turnout, several political figures, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, have reduced claims of voter suppression in Georgia to “conspiracies.” I find these responses dishonest and also amusing since discreditors of voter suppression tend to be squarely focused on turnout. But voting rights proponents have always aimed beyond that — reducing barriers to voting, increasing the political literacy of candidates and their platforms, and returning power back to the people. And that is what voter suppression threatens, despite what the polls may say. It’s safe to say it’s a win that more people came out to vote, but as gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams asserts, what about the thousands that didn’t?

As southern states, like Georgia, continue to restrict RJ access while ramping up voter disenfranchisement, we must continue shedding light on how voter suppression restricts the access people have to participate in their own self-determination within the p

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