When Jimmy Carter first ran for the Georgia state senate in 1962, he lost — before challenging the result.
The Democrat contended his opponent had illegally “stuffed” ballot boxes with fraudulent votes cast in the name of people who had died or moved out of the area. A judge agreed with Carter, and he was declared the winner after a recount.
Nearly six decades later, Carter, now 96, is a mild-mannered former US president. But he cited his first election when he issued a rare statement this month slamming Georgia Republicans for their attempts to enact sweeping changes to voting laws that would significantly reduce the opportunities to vote outside of election day.
“As our state legislators seek to turn back the clock through legislation that will restrict access to voting for many Georgians, I am disheartened, saddened and angry,” Carter said, in a nod to the southern state’s long history of racial strife, from slavery to segregation to the civil rights movement.
Less than three months after a mob ransacked the US capitol, spurred on by Donald Trump’s false claims about voter fraud, the battle lines are already being drawn for America’s next election.
Carter was reacting to a bevy of bills being considered by the Georgia state legislature that would, if signed into law, do everything from sharply restricting access to absentee voting to preventing in-person early voting on Sundays — something Democrats say amounts to a brazen attack on black voters, who have historically cast ballots as part of “souls to the polls” efforts at African-American churches.
After Democrats won both the state’s Senate seats in January’s run-off, two high-profile bills have passed the GOP-controlled Georgia state House and state Senate, respectively, though it remains unclear what versions would be sent to Brian Kemp, the state’s Republican governor — and whether he would sign it into law.
But that has not stopped the proposals from generating huge amounts of national interest and reviving calls for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, a key piece of federal civil rights legislation from 1965 that was partly dismantled by the US Supreme Court in 2013.
With the stimulus bill passed, Democrats in Washington now see a narrow window to push for federal legislation that protects and expands voting rights. If they do not succeed, some argue, they could end up losing the 2022 midterms or the 2024 presidential election simply because of efforts to make it harder for people to vote. In Georgia, one of the key swing states that Joe Biden won in November, his margin of victory was just over 12,000 votes; in Arizona, it was closer to 10,000.
“Everything is at stake. We must win this race, this fight for this bill,” Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, said this month at the US Capitol ahead of the lower chamber’s vote on one of the proposed voting rights bills. “At the same time as we are gathering here to honour our democracy, across the country over 200 bills are being put together, provisions are being put forward to suppress the vote.”
According to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, as of last month, legislators in 43 states had proposed more than 250 bills that would make it harder to vote — more than seven times the number of bills that had been put forward at this time last year.
Republicans argue the changes in Georgia and other states are an essential stopgap against the widespread fraud and corruption that Donald Trump and his supporters falsely claim “rigged” last November’s presidential election in Joe Biden’s favour. November saw a higher share of the US voting population cast ballots than in any election for more than a century; a record 101m people voted early either by mail or in person, according to the University of Florida’s US Elections Project. Early voting was expanded in response to public health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Democrats accuse Republicans of perpetuating Trump’s “big lie” and undermining faith in America’s electoral system — and contend the Georgia proposals are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to GOP efforts to keep their supporters out of the polling booths in next year’s midterm elections, when the parties will vie for control of the US House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as dozens of state governor races.
Many of the most aggressive changes are being floated in states such as Arizona and Florida, where, as in Georgia, Republicans control the legislatures and the governor’s mansions. All three were crucial swing states in last year’s presidential election and will see closely fought races in the midterms.
“The voter suppression efforts we are seeing are widespread. They are racist, and they are clearly a calculation by Republicans that the only way that they feel like they can win elections is to make it more difficult for Americans to vote,” says Sean Eldridge, founder of the progressive group Stand Up America.
“Any politician should want to win their race, or a political party should want to win their races, by convincing the majority that they can do the best job, not by making it harder for the other side to vote,” he adds.
Republican officials defend their actions, with many saying outright the changes would increase their chances of winning.
“I’m like a dog with a bone. I will not let them end this [legislative] session without changing some of these laws,” Alice O’Lenick, the Republican chair of the board of elections in Gwinnett County, outside of Atlanta, was quoted as saying earlier this year. “They don’t have to change all of them, but they’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot at winning.”
‘Old battles become new’
Fierce battles over voting rights, particularly for black people, have been a fixture of modern American history, from the civil war to Reconstruction to the segregationist Jim Crow era to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
A turning point in the civil rights movement came in March 1965, when John Lewis, a 25-year-old student activist, led hundreds of peaceful marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, only for the protesters to be brutally beaten by police.
The scenes in Selma spurred then president Lyndon B Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act, the landmark law that prohibited racial discrimination in voting and regulated elections, later that year. Lewis, who died last year at the age of 80, would go on to be a longtime congressman from Georgia and an icon of the civil rights movement.
The Voting Rights Act, however, has been the subject of more than a dozen high-profile legal challenges, most notably Shelby vs Holder, a case that resulted in a 2013 landmark decision from the Supreme Court that struck down a key provision of the law.
The court ruled, 5-4, to wipe away the “coverage formula” that determined whether certain states and localities needed to have any changes to their election laws preapproved by the federal government. Writing the majority opinion, chief justice John Roberts argued the formula was unconstitutional because it was based on old information and created rules for states that no longer discriminated against voters in a way they once did.
In her dissent, the late liberal chief justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said voter discrimination had only declined because the Voting Rights Act existed. She likened scrapping the key provision to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet”.
Activists say the Holder decision opened the floodgates for laws restricting ballot access — a trend that only accelerated during the Trump era, and ramped up even more after the former president led a campaign to undermine public faith in November’s election result. The Supreme Court earlier this month heard arguments in a separate case involving voting restrictions in Arizona that have been in place since 2016. A decision is expected later this year. That decision could see the court further weaken the Voting Rights Act.
“We have seen old battles have become new again,” says Terri Sewell, a Democratic congresswoman from Alabama, who represents Selma and the surrounding area in the House. “I would have never thought that the cause for which John Lewis and those footsoldiers marched 56 years ago would now become our cause, too.”
“It is going to require congressional action once again to fully restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act,” she adds.
Sewell is the lead sponsor of HR4, also known as the “John Lewis Voting Rights Advanced Act”, which would restore the Voting Rights Act by, among other things, writing a modern formula that would require states to have voting law changes approved by the federal government. The House, which is controlled by Democrats, is expected to pass a bill in the coming months that Sewell says would hold up to any legal scrutiny.
The lower chamber of Congress this month separately approved, in a party-line vote, HR1, or the For the People Act, another sweeping piece of voting rights legislation that includes provisions for automatic voter registration, a requirement that states guarantee a time period for early voting, and the restoration of voting rights for offenders who have completed their sentences. Republicans accused Democrats of trying to launch a « federal takeover » of elections that would remove safeguards that prevent voter fraud.
As federal legislation, HR1 and HR4, if signed into law, would supersede the state-level measures being proposed in Georgia and other states. But the bills are unlikely to move beyond the House and gain approval in the Senate, thanks to Republican opposition and an upper house custom known as the filibuster, which effectively requires the support of 60 senators in order to consider a proposal.
In the current Senate, which is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, that means 10 Republican lawmakers would need to cross party lines — something highly unlikely given the partisan divides.
The circumstances have piled pressure on Biden and a handful of moderate Democratic senators to call for scrapping the filibuster altogether, something the president, an institutionalist who served as a senator for several decades, has been loath to endorse.
That said, this month, Biden signed an executive order intended to boost voter registration, in a move White House officials say underscores his commitment to enshrining voting rights into law and ensuring states do not crowd out voters — even if he does not have the power to stop the state laws outright.
Biden’s unilateral action, signed on the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, directs federal agencies to promote voter registration and participation, and to work with states to help register voters. It also mandates federal authorities overhaul the Vote.gov website, ensure federal employees are given time off work to vote or volunteer as poll workers, and provide more resources to make sure people with disabilities, military personnel on active duty, other overseas voters and Native Americans have opportunities to register to vote.
“He is leaving no cards on the table, and he is acting this early in his administration, five or six weeks into his presidency, on this topic,” says one senior Biden administration official.
“The president cannot through executive order prevent state legislatures from rolling back vote by mail,” the official adds. “But the president can put a marker in his hand that demonstrates what he thinks is right and what is important for democracy, and the marker that President Biden is issuing with this executive order . . . is the core importance of making voting easier, not harder.”
In Georgia, the stakes could not be higher.
In next year’s midterms, Raphael Warnock will seek to defend the Senate seat he won only two months ago in a hotly contested run-off against Kelly Loeffler; Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist, is expected to challenge Kemp in the governor’s race again.
Abrams narrowly lost in her bid against Kemp in 2018 in a contest that was marred with accusations that Kemp, then the state’s secretary of state, had suppressed the votes of some black citizens by removing them from the voter rolls.
More than two years later, analysis by the non-partisan Brennan Center has found that Georgia Republicans’ voting restriction proposals currently being debated at the state house would disproportionately hurt black voters, whether by curbing “souls to the polls” or severely limiting access to mail-in voting. Black voters account for around a third of the electorate in Georgia and tend to overwhelmingly back Democrats.
Jason Shepherd, the Republican party chair in Cobb County, an affluent area outside of Atlanta, calls the claims “completely ridiculous”.
“I think Democrats are using this as a talking point and a fundraising point, and what is more, they are spreading disinformation,” Shepherd says. “No one is losing their right to vote. This is not voter suppression.”
“There used to be no option for early voting,” he adds. “We have become used to it, but prior to about 15, 20 years ago, you only had a chance to vote on election day, and everyone showed up on election day. Does that mean we were suppressing the vote all of those years?”
Lewanna Heard-Tucker, the Democratic party chair in neighbouring Fulton county, which compromises most of Atlanta, vehemently disagrees.
“It is unfair to certain communities, and we know that, and [Republicans] know what communities this impacts,” she says. “That is what they are banking on, that these people won’t show up.”
But Heard-Tucker says she is confident that even if the proposals are signed into law, they could have the unintended consequence of only further motivating black voters whose support was seen as key to both Biden’s victory in November and the two Senate run-offs in January.
“We are obviously going to do whatever it takes to keep this ball rolling and continue to keep Georgia blue, but the antics have already started, and we are ready to go to war,” she says. “What you thought was going to be a kick in the face ended up being something that motivated us to get out there and do more.”