An Open Letter to the Georgia Secretary of State
From the National Disability Rights Network and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
While you may be seeking a higher office in the state of Georgia, you must uphold the obligations you swore to uphold as Secretary of State. Your actions thus far show a stunning lack of leadership and impartiality in your role.
You have made a clear, intentional choice to create barriers for voters of color in Georgia on the eve of a midterm election, in which you are also a candidate and the chief election official. Your office has cancelled more than 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012. You purged more than a half million voters (eight percent of the total registered voters in Georgia) in a single day in July 2017, and you still weren’t through. Just weeks before the November 6 election, your office failed to process more than 53,000 voter registrations. Eighty percent of those suspended registrations belong to Georgians of color.
Perhaps your most flagrant attempt at silencing the Georgian voices of color comes in your attempts to pit people of color and people with disabilities against each other — in the fight for access to the ballot.
In August 2018, Randolph County, GA hatched a plan to close 80 percent of the county’s polling places in rural Georgia on former plantation lands, targeting precincts where up to 99 percent of the electorate are African American. With no real evidence, the Board of Elections blamed the Americans with Disabilities Act for poll closures. While you gave yourself room to publicly wash your hands of the Randolph County plan, a hired consultant, who quoted you during the public unveiling of the plans, was the one who proposed the polling place closures. And Randolph County is only the tip of the iceberg. Georgia has closed 214 voting precincts since 2012. Nearly eight percent of polling places across the state have closed their doors.
Perhaps your most disturbing attempt to intimidate voters of color is the prosecution of Black community leaders for exercising their federal right to assist voters with disabilities cast a ballot. Six years after simply showing a first-time voter how to insert a card into the voting machine at her local polling place, city councilwoman, community leader, and grandmother Olivia Pearson faced felony charges in Coffee County. Prosecutors who could not even allege that Ms. Pearson tried to influence the vote or even help with casting the ballot had her arrested, booked, and publicly confronted with the threat of 15 years of incarceration.
Olivia Pearson is not alone. Debra Dennard of Quitman County was slapped with two felony charges for assisting her father, a partially blind amputee, to fill out his absentee ballot — despite the fact he is guaranteed the right to the assistor of his choice by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lula Smart was charged with 32 felonies and the prospect of more than 100 years in prison for carrying sealed absentee ballots to a mailbox. Your office led the charge of armed investigators that stormed Quitman County after 2010, when residents elected a majority Black school board for the first time.
We will not allow you to use people with disabilities as unwitting foot soldiers in your war on African Americans and other minorities in the great state of Georgia. We will not allow you to undermine civil rights protections for voters with disabilities in your quest to build barriers to the minority vote. Voters of color and voters with disabilities remain united. Shame on you, for leveraging the Secretary of State’s office to make it harder for people of color to vote. Mr. Kemp, the eyes of a nation are on you.
Curt Decker, Executive Director, National Disability Rights Network
LaShawn Warren, Senior Vice President of Campaigns & Programs, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights